Future of refugees dim without education for their children

22 Feb 2022 08:42am
Rohingya children - AFP
Rohingya children - AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - If Mohammudun Hassan had drowned in the Andaman Sea in May 2015, his death would have been traced to the February morning he was called into the headmaster’s office at his school in Bangladesh and told he was being expelled for being a Rohingya.

His expulsion was not wholly unexpected. Bangladesh prohibits non-citizens, including refugees, from attending any of its government schools. Hassan and other refugee children had managed to enrol in the school by using falsified documentation, which was available at their camp for the right price.

Hassan remembered how outwardly calm everyone was even as the 15-year-old’s world fell apart. Inside, he was a churning ball of disappointment, sadness and anger. Lost were his dreams of becoming a doctor. Upset, he returned to the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar where he lived with his family. He told his mother what happened. She was sad but counselled patience.

All it did was strengthen Hassan’s resolve to leave.

"I didn’t see any kind of future inside the camp there. It’s like an open prison, a dark hole,” he told Bernama.

Feeling trapped, he called his friend in Malaysia, who told him about a trafficker who could get him here. In Malaysia, his friend promised, life would be better.

Little did he know that a few months later, he would be forced to swim to the shore in the Andaman Sea, towing a plank with another man while 10 other people clung to dear life. He and other passengers had to abandon ship when their vessel sprang a leak. The traffickers were long gone by then, after setting them and some 4,000 asylum-seekers in two other boats adrift with no food and water.

At least 70 people died in total in that tragedy, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

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Hassan and his fellow passengers were finally rescued by Acehnese fishermen. A year later, he made his way to Malaysia, where he received his UNHCR card and graduated from high school, thanks to a non-governmental organisation that sponsored his education.

Options and obstacles

For decades, Myanmar has refused to acknowledge Rohingyas’ citizenship and has persecuted and deprived them of basic rights such as education, property and life. A major portion of the 180,440 refugees in Malaysia comprises Rohingyas, according to UNHCR and government figures.

This data does not reflect the actual number of unregistered refugees or asylum seekers in this country. Recently, a series of videos purportedly of Rohingya children persistently begging for money went viral on social media with some netizens condemning such tactics as "thuggish” and rude, and called for the authorities to take action against them.

Others counselled understanding and many pointed out that refugee children, especially Rohingyas, have less access to education compared to others. Yayasan Chow Kit Foundation founder and child advocate Datuk Dr Hartini Zainuddin said resettlement to a third country is the best hope for refugees but is unlikely to happen. "If you’re a community that has been denied access to education, denied skills, then you are going to fall at the bottom of priorities in terms of resettlement,” she said.

"As a policy, we should be allowing access to education and life skills for the children.” Although there are educational opportunities in Malaysia for refugees, their biggest barrier to education is systemic, that is, the citizenship requirement. Others include geographical barriers, lack of funding and poverty.

Refugee and stateless children do not have the right to access Malaysia’s formal education system, just like in Bangladesh.

While Malaysia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), it reserved the right to reject or modify certain core principles, including the right to non-discrimination (Article 2), to compulsory free and primary education for all children (Article 28.1.a), and to protection against torture and deprivation of liberty (Article 37).

In 2018, the government had implemented the zero-reject policy, which allowed special needs and undocumented children to attend public schools.

The policy was reversed two years later. However, Malaysia continues to allow NGO-run and UNHCR-accredited learning centres to operate, and private schools to accept refugees and stateless children as students under the Ministry of Education’s (MoE) purview.

Hassan’s friend and an ethnic Rohingya born in Malaysia, Johan, 21, wished the zero-reject policy was in effect when he tried to go to school. Instead, he could only use his birth certificate to attend kindergarten and primary school at a private religious institution in Pahang, but only up to a point.

"I tried to register to go to a public school after that but officials said I could not do so because I don’t have valid documents. So I couldn’t continue my studies,” he told Bernama.

He added there was no refugee school nearby that he could attend at the time. He is currently separated from his parents and four of his brothers, who are in immigration detention centres.

Other than his father, his whole family was born in Malaysia. With no option left to continue schooling, he went to work at a company at the age of 13, putting up telecommunications cables, cutting grass and cleaning ditches.

There are now 131 learning centres for refugees, most of which are in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Outside of the Klang Valley, there is at least one registered refugee school in each state other than Perlis.

Money talks

Like everything else, funding is key to setting up, staffing and equipping an educational institution for refugees and stateless students. And like many charitable efforts, funds are hard to come by.

Due to the CRC’s Article 28.1.a exemption, the Malaysian government is not funding these learning centres, making them fully dependent on donations.

To help with the running of the schools, some charge a nominal fee, which can still be too high. As for private schools, the fees they charge are even higher and often beyond refugee families’ ability to pay.

Volunteer headmaster at the Pelangi Kasih refugee learning centre in Selayang, Selangor, Rafik Shah Mohd Ismail told Bernama the school charges a registration fee of RM30 annually and RM20 monthly.

However, the school does not kick out any student whose parents cannot pay, especially since many lost their income during the pandemic-related Movement Control Order that was in effect for much of 2021.

"It’s better to have them here than out on the streets,” he said.

The school tries to teach Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mathematics, Science and Moral Studies, as well as some life skills such as cooking and sewing, depending on resources and availability of qualified teachers.

The students’ ages range from six to 16. Rafik Shah, who is the de facto community leader for Rohingya refugees in Selayang, added it was important for the Rohingyas to get an education as it would help them to assimilate better in Malaysia and contribute to society.

Many of them are uneducated as Myanmar has refused to give Rohingyas their basic right to education and other civil liberties for decades.

Volunteer teacher Mariya Mohd Tahir agreed, saying Rohingyas were not like refugees from other countries such as Syria, who tend to be more educated.

She said even if the other refugees’ children could not go to school, their parents could still teach them the basics. But for the Rohingyas, the roles are reversed.

"The majority of Rohingya refugee parents don’t know how to read or count, and this becomes a problem for their kids. We hope the refugee children will share what they learn here with their parents and family members so they can improve,” she said.

As of Dec 31, 2021, UNHCR figures state that Malaysia was sheltering 180,440 refugees and asylum-seekers, of which 57 percent are Rohingyas.

Other refugees in Malaysia include other ethnic minorities from Myanmar, as well as Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians.

The future

In a better world, refugee children would be able to attend school until graduation. In reality, many drop out during their teenage years to help out their families.

According to UNHCR figures, 44 percent of 5,046 refugee children aged between six and 13 are receiving primary education.

As the age goes up, the dropout rate increases, with only 14 percent of children aged 14 to 17 enrolled in secondary education. In total, only 30 percent out of 23,823 refugee children are enrolled in 131 learning centres in Malaysia.

This figure pertains to those who have applied for or been granted refugee status. Mariya, who has worked with refugees for years, is worried about what will happen to the children if nothing is done to help them access education and stay in school.

Many of her students were born in Malaysia to parents who have been here for years, if not decades. "These refugee kids are really smart and if nurtured, they will surely succeed and be able to improve their family’s situation,” she said.

The future weighs heavily on Hassan too. Now 23 years old and volunteering with Geutanyoe Foundation, Hassan continues to work to expand educational access for refugee children.

He has been married for over two years, but he is reluctant to have children as long as he is in Malaysia.

"I’m not saying that I don’t have a more comfortable life here, but I’m worried I can’t give my kids anything, not even a passport,” he said. - BERNAMA

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