LAST month, we conducted an elective project at selected refugee schools in the Klang Valley.
The schools we visited were run mainly by the Rohingya and Chin communities. As expected, the schools were severely underfunded, understaffed and in deplorable condition.
There are about 175,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. The exact number is unknown as the unregistered ones are said to be of equal or perhaps bigger number.
Children comprise about 25 per cent of this population, or 48,000.
Of the schoolgoing age group, only 30 per cent are reported to be enrolled in schools. Nobody knows for sure what happened to the remaining 70 per cent.
In Malaysia, refugee children are not allowed to enrol in public schools. As such, refugee communities run their own community-based learning centres. These learning centres have no sustainable funds.
Employing permanent teachers is difficult and reliance on volunteers means a high turnover rate. Many of these schools depend on public donations to meet rental and utility costs.
Worst of all, children often come to school hungry.
The plight of refugees in Malaysia is no secret. We know that they live in dire poverty,
they have almost no access to formal education and affordable healthcare, they are socially marginalised, it is illegal for them to work and they live in constant fear.
But what we do not know, or perhaps are not willing to do, is to treat them as we would like to be treated.
While it might be true that there is a lack of research on refugees in the Malaysian context that can assist policymakers in designing effective intervention programmes, what we need is not so much of “scientific evidence” but a living conscience and strong political will.
From the mini-survey we conducted, one in three Rohingya and Chin adolescents in school had depression of varying degrees. Girls on average were more distressed than boys. This is not surprising. With all the social exclusion, discrimination and restrictions, do we expect them to be happy and content?
Most students we spoke to expressed hopelessness about their future and “where to go” once they finished school.
Tertiary education does not seem to be an option and working can potentially land them in jail.
Malaysia loses nothing by granting these children access to education.
Many of them are likely to stay as the prospect of resettlement is getting more difficult each year and they will be a huge asset to Malaysia.
In fact, a large number of the children were born and brought up here, are able to speak Bahasa Malaysia fluently and have little familiarity with their home country.
By providing education and affordable healthcare, we do not only save this generation but also prevent the young from falling into a life of crime.
The children we met during the project were only a small portion of the 30 per cent of refugee children who are fortunate to go to school. The remaining 70 per cent are somewhere out there, scavenging waste bins and dumps to survive, waiting to be married off or suffering in silence.
RAUDAH MOHD YUNUS; NUR AISYAH ZAINORDIN; NUR SANIAH SHAMSUDDIN; NUR ATHIRA ZAILANA AND NUR SABILA SYAZWANI HARIYONO
Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Sungai Buloh campus, Selangor