Poverty pushes Rohingya kids out of school, into work, marriage

23 Feb 2022 09:42am
Rohingya children - AFP
Rohingya children - AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - In the bright, sunny room in a three-story office building in Selayang, Selangor, teenage Rohingya boys shouted answers to the teacher’s questions, while a mix of boys and girls studied English in an adjoining room.

It was the first day of school for many of these children so attendance was high.

In the coming months, teachers at the Rainbow of Love (‘Pelangi Kasih’) Learning Centre, run by the Human Aid Selangor Society (HASS), expect a few to drop out as life as refugees exerts its pressure.

Many of the teenage boys may turn their part-time work to full-time and some of the girls may be married off to help their families that tend to be large and poor.

Their situation, however, has improved a lot in recent years.

If this was 2014, these children might have been walking the streets, begging for alms from passers-by.

HASS vice president Badariah Abdul Hamid acknowledged the change, telling Bernama this showed the importance of education.

"I saw that there were a lot of children on the street. At that time (around 2014), many were begging on the streets, also at traffic lights - it was like everywhere,” she said.

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She added there was no school in this area then, although there were plenty of refugees with children living here, attracted by the low-skilled jobs at nearby Kuala Lumpur and the Selayang Wholesale Market.

The sight of the child beggars got Badariah and her team to set up the learning centre for stateless Rohingya refugee children, beginning with a kindergarten in a shop lot across the street.

The response was tremendous, prompting the charity to move to a bigger building in 2015, big enough for 100 students.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 131 refugee learning centres in Malaysia.

Rohingya children account for the biggest group of students in these centres at 72 percent.

While refugee and stateless children here may now have more access to education, their financial options have not changed, causing many of the said children to give up their education early in order to alleviate their family’s poverty.


Refugees, by dint of their lack of formal status in Malaysia, are not able to work officially, similar to undocumented workers.

However, according to the former chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees Chan Ming Kai, the Malaysian government allows them to work in the informal sector as daily wage earners, as per Directive 23 of the National Security Council.

Such jobs include lowly-paid low-skilled work such as cutting grass, cleaning ditches and working at wet markets.

Many Rohingya children start working as teenagers to help out their families as jobs refugees are allowed to do are scarce and do not pay well.

It is the same with the students at Pelangi Kasih, who usually start working part-time or doing odd jobs at the age of 13.

Mariya Mohd Tahir, one of the teachers at the learning centre, told Bernama primary school-level classes - dubbed the advanced classes - are only available on Mondays and Tuesdays, not because there is a shortage of teachers per se, but due to the shortage of students who are able to attend.

"They come to school on Monday and Tuesday and work the rest of the week,” she said, adding that the school conducts preschool classes the rest of the week.

She and the other teachers worry that their older students’ part-time work will soon turn into full-time jobs.

"Poverty is their biggest obstacle: they need to make money in order to survive. Their pay is not that big, either. For example, a job cutting peppers from 6pm to midnight gets them RM6,” she said.

Over the years, she has seen many students leave after the age of 14, with the boys choosing to work, while the girls get married off, a trend the UNHCR has noted.

Only 14 per cent of children aged 14 to 17 enrolled in secondary education, according to its figures. In total, 28 percent of 23,823 refugee children are enrolled in learning centres.

These figures pertain to those who have applied for or been granted refugee status.

One of the children Mariya worries about is Mohd Nur Adam, a 13-year-old boy she describes as "smart and curious”, who works at an ice factory to help out his mother and his seven siblings.

His 14-year-old brother is also working while his 15-year-old sister stays home most days to take care of the house and younger siblings.

All UNHCR cardholders, they first enrolled in the refugee school in 2019 after HASS volunteers rescued their mother, who was four months pregnant at that time, and their family when they were homeless and living in an abandoned mechanic shop in Sentul.

Their father had been arrested and detained by the police a few months earlier.

Mohd Nur Adam told Bernama he preferred to go to school but had to work to help out his family.

"I see my mother working herself ragged taking care of my siblings and me. Mother works at an onion processing plant. To help her out, I’m also working,” he said in fluent Malay.

Despite not being able to go to class for a little over a year due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021, Adam advanced quickly.

"Adam is quite good because he’s talkative. Asks a lot of questions. If he sees any word he doesn’t know, he’ll ask a teacher, ‘What does this mean?’” said Mariya. She added his 15-year-old sister Aishah was also keen to learn.

Despite her age, Aishah’s ability to read and write are at preschool level.

Like her peers, Aishah may end up being married off soon, but Mariya thinks it is unlikely for now as her mother needed someone to watch the younger children. However, the same cannot be said for some of Mariya’s female students.


According to people who work with the Rohingya community, including de facto community leader Rafik Shah Mohd Ismail, marrying young is the norm in their culture.

The husband is expected to financially support the wife and family while the wife stays at home to take care of the children.

Throw in economic hardship and lack of opportunities, and child marriage becomes a survival strategy for many girls and women, not only the Rohingyas.

According to activists, many girls are trafficked to Malaysia, with adult men here paying the girls’ families the dowry and traffickers for their passage.

Some girls are married off years after they arrive in Malaysia with their families.

In the past year, Mariya said she lost three students aged between 12 and 15 to marriage. Yayasan Chow Kit founder Datuk Dr Hartini Zainuddin said if people had no future, girls would usually pay the price as boys could work.

"It’s a cultural thing, and it’s now worse because it’s (also) desperation,” she said.

Although there is no exact data on the number of refugee child brides in Malaysia, the practice is prevalent enough that the UNHCR has held meetings and discussions with non-governmental organisations to educate the Rohingyas and other refugees to allow their girls to go to school and not to marry them off until they are older.

Senior human rights specialist for human rights group Fortify Rights John Quinley III researched child marriages among the Rohingyas in refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2018 and 2019.

He told Bernama they found that families had sent their girls to marry in Malaysia because many felt they had little choice.

"Rohingya family members that we talked to - that sent their girls to Malaysia - said some of the main reasons for sending them was because of the financial support that those girls would get in Malaysia.

And they hoped that they would get a better life in Malaysia than in the camps in Bangladesh,” he said.

The Bangkok-based refugee advocate added the chances for education and jobs in the camps were limited and getting worse.

Bernama spoke to several female students at Pelangi Kasih, who admitted to knowing several girls who got married when they were still underage.

Eleven-year-old Rohingya Halimah Ismail said her elder sister left school a year ago when she married her step-uncle.

She is not sure of his age but described him as "old” - he was probably aged between 20 and 30.

Her sister was 16 at the time, the second child out of five.

Another girl, Kahmin Salin, said her friend got married to a male student at the school a few years back. Her friend was 16 at the time, as well.

Halimah and Kahmin said they enjoyed school and wanted to continue their studies.

When asked if there was a possibility either might marry young, Kahmin was confident she would not have to.

"My father will not allow me to marry as I am still young,” the 13-year-old said.


However, until something is codified in the law to address the causes of child labour and child marriage, the girls’ future will remain in limbo. Advocates say the government needs to provide protection to children, most importantly by expanding access to education, and reduce poverty by allowing adult family members to work officially.

Bernama talked to several lawmakers, who agreed that education for all was important, but thought that allowing refugee children into the public school system would not get enough support from the public.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah seems to confirm that belief, rushing to reassure the public that no taxpayers’ funds or government allocations would go into educating the Rohingya refugees.

Instead, he said funding for their education would come from a Qatari foundation.

The Ministry of Education declined to comment.

While free public education for refugee children may not be possible in the near future, there are indicators that legal employment for their parents may soon be possible.

Whatever happens, Dr Hartini said things are rarely as hopeless as they seem.

"There’s always a way out because they are policies, they are man-made. They’re not God’s will, they’re not God’s rule. So as long as there is political will, you can change anything,” she said. - BERNAMA