General Writings

The problems refugees face in Malaysia – and how we can solve them

Saransikan, at 14 years-old, fled from her home in Rohingya. There were 200 people overcrowded on the boat and the engine failed. 60 people died, including her mother, her younger sister and brother.

 Written by Aw Yee Chen


Saransikan, at 14 years-old, fled from her home in Rohingya. There were 200 people overcrowded on the boat and the engine failed. 60 people died, including her mother, her younger sister and brother.

Yasmine, 13 years-old, was dragged out of her house and her parents were helpless. She was forced onto a boat to Malaysia. 16 other people and her cramped in one small room and travelled on the sea for two months.

However, when hundreds of these boats people from Rohingya arrived at Malaysia waters, close to dying, our government pushed them away. “We do not want them here,” said the Deputy Home Minister “Send them back”. Only through pressure from Rights group, Malaysia has accepted them. [1]

When they finally set foot here after risking their lives, the future that awaits them is again unfortunately, bleak. They have no choice.

Firstly, they have no right to work. Therefore, they work at places where the employers are willing to turn a blind eye on their illegal status, and it usually means cheap labour. Their pay could go as low as RM 200-300 per month for dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs. Imagine that your 10-year-old brother is already working as a factory worker. Such an occurrence is usual for refugees since they simply have no right to education. Education only depends on very basic education provided by organisations.

Secondly, like a hiding mouse, they live in the fear of being arrested all the time. Even if they are registered as a refugee through UNHCR, they still risk being detained. Refugees have confessed that officers have taken away their refugee cards and detained them in perishable condition.

A family in told that they always carry RM300 around when they are out. Why? So that if any officer approaches them they could bribe the officers and get away. They ground themselves in house, except to go to work, for fear of meeting any officer.

Proposed solution 1:

Therefore, the call is high for Malaysia to accede to the 1951 Convention Relating to The Status of Refugees.

The Convention allows them to enter without any proper documentation. This protects the refugees – one person might not get the proper documents when he was beaten or dragged onto the boats, right? The non-refoulement principle prevents the refugees from being deported back to the very homeland which has threatened their lives. In fact, Malaysia’s act of pushing away the boat people from Rohingya has already violated such principle adopted in the international law. [2]

For better, their refugee status is legal. They do not need to walk around frantically with RM 300 in their wallet to get away in case of being arrested anymore. They actually could work and earn money. Their children could go to school, and go to a doctor when they are sick.

Under the Convention, the refugees who have no choices seem to be better protected in Malaysia.

However, the arguments against the 1951 Convention are stronger. Firstly, the number of refugees has reached a stunning number of 21 million, something unpredicted 65 years ago. Hence, the Convention has not planned to cater for such an enormous amount of refugees. [3]

After ratifying, you can expect asylum-seekers and economic migrants to flood Malaysia. The prospect of arriving without proper documentation appeals them. There are already 1 million of illegal foreign workers here that competes with locals for working opportunities and the Convention would encourage more to come. Besides, Malaysia’s strategic geographical position could potentially become a main transit point for human trafficking and smuggling. Not to mention the risk for terrorism to proliferate. Hence, signing the Convention is not pragmatic when it risks the citizens’ safety.

The economic migrants would take advantage and try to apply for refugee status through UNHCR. The presence of large number of economic migrants will undoubtedly slow down the refugee status determination (RSD) process which could take around 1 to 6 months. To date, there are 150,000 of refugees registered under UNHCR and a large amount of applications are still pending. Therefore, an influx of applications from these economic migrants, will only delay the protection of refugee status for those vulnerable asylum-seekers who are really in need urgently. Hence, to sign the Convention could cause further compromise of refugees’ protection.[4] [5]

In light of all these criticisms, it is evident that Malaysia should not accede to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. A solution that could be done is giving the refugees the right to work in Malaysia alongside a framework for resettlement in a third country. There are only 1% of refugees being resettled in a third country. Our previous regime of Comprehensive Plan Action (CPA) to resettle Indochinese refugees which was proven effective would be a useful reference to draw up a new framework.

Protesters gather outside a hotel in Kuala Lumpur ahead of the signing of the asylum-seeker swap deal between Australia and Malaysia, Monday, July 25, 2011. (AAP Image/Karlis Salna)

Proposed solution 2:

Instead of seeing them as parasites, we should allow them to be independent.

Take Lebanon as example. A quarter of Lebanon’s 4 million populations are refugees. It allows the refugees to work legally. Surprisingly, 21% of refugees run their own businesses and 40% of their employment are the local people. The refugees are making jobs. A public transport system in Lebanon that runs daily from a refugee camp to the city is actually ran by Somalis refugees and not the locals. [6]

Refugees are perceived as undereducated people. Nevertheless, many among them are professionals like teachers, doctors and pharmacists. A doctor, writing on his blog, was totally surprised that one of his patients, a blue-collar construction worker who came in for a fever, knew about every single medicine and even able to prescribe medicines for himself correctly. It turned out that the worker was a trained pharmacist in Syria.

They could actually contribute to our workforce and creates diversity. Our country rely 13% of foreign workers, and around 1 million of it are unregistered. We could incorporate them, legally, into this workforce of ours. This way, we are helping refugees to help themselves, and help Malaysia at the same time.

Recently, a huge great leap taken by Malaysia is in the implementation of a pilot scheme. This scheme allows the Rohingyas to work in Malaysia lawfully – they will be placed in manufacturing and plantation industry. This move is highly commendable as it will help them to gain some skills before being relocated to a third country. We should not limit it to just Rohingyas. There are so many refugees out there who are trying to make a living by themselves.

Dear Malaysian, these refugees are no different from us.

We are also fathers, mothers, siblings, children and friends. When we have no choice, we will also risk our lives for our loved ones, for dignity, for peace. We are all, humans.

When the refugees are lost with no choice, fellow Malaysians, let’s give them one.

Featured photo used with owner’s permission.*

ASASIkini tries its best to share reliable content from third parties without prejudice and with a firm belief in freedom of expression. All articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion and ASASIkini, and KPUM, does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by the writers.


[1] Watson, I. (2015, May). We will send Rohingya back. Retrieved from

[2] Lefevre, A. S. (2014, November 15). Rohingya relatives says thousands missing in boats en route to Malaysia. Retrieved from

[3] Chi, M. (2015, June 19). A story of survival. Retrieved from

[4] Refugees in Malaysia. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[5] Malaysia Data. (2016). Retrieved from

[6] What if we help refugees to help themselves? [Video file]. (2015, November 18).

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