Warning: The beginning of this post contains vivid descriptions of violence towards women and children as told by Rohingya refugees in a UNHCR interview. You may want to skip over the first paragraph and the first three bullet points if you want to avoid this content.
In February 2017, the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner released a report containing interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled Myanmar. It is heart-wrenching even to the coldest of hearts and portrays cruelty beyond anything most of us could even imagine:
The Rohingya people constitute almost 90% of all refugees in Malaysia. These are some of the unthinkable horrors that they are running from. As most Malaysians know, our country has, in recent years, stepped up to accept many refugees from Myanmar. Some argue that these gestures have been politically motivated, but regardless of the reasons, many refugees have found new homes in various Malaysian cities. Something that may not be as well-understood by the public, however, and something that I hope to shed some light on in this essay, is the limited legal status of refugees in this country.
Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention Treaty and its 1967 Protocol. The 1951 Refugee Convention was a treaty between 145 countries that defined the term refugee ("someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion"), outlined the rights of refugees who seek asylum in other countries, and demarcated the responsibilities of the countries accepting said refugees. Malaysia also does not have any plans to sign the UN convention. The acceptance and ratification of the 1951 UN Convention in politically unpopular because many Malaysians believe that legally recognizing refugees will lead to a drop in the number of jobs available to locals and to the suppression in wages in the labor market. This being, Malaysia accepts refugees only to the extent of acting as an "intermediate country" with the understanding that the individuals will eventually be resettled to another country. While in Malaysia, refugees do not enjoy legal protection or access to public resources such as education for their children or healthcare. Refugees also cannot legally work. In a documentary about Rohingya Muslims in Malaysia, Shabbir Ahmad, a refugee, declared, "We have no job or future here. We have nothing. There's no money for my medical treatment. We have no legal status or UNHCR legal status. Without a UNHCR card, no one can hire me for work."
The setup outlined above is problematic for many reasons, the top two being:
Currently, there are over 150,000 refugees in Malaysia formally registered with UNHCR. The actual number of refugees present in the country could be significantly higher, although there is no telling by how much. This past March, the Malaysian government started a pilot program to grant a limited number of 5-year work visas to Rohingya refugees to work on plantations or in manufacturing. This program was deemed unsuccessful because only 120 refugees signed up to participate at the time of launch. This is not surprising for many reasons, the first being that refugees who accept jobs through this program would probably have to relocate their family away from the existing refugee community. Since the Rohingya are not well-integrated with the Malaysian community, I suspect this is a very unappealing choice for most refugees due to the fact that they would lose their support system. The second reason speaks to the booming underground economy in Malaysia -- refugees are probably earning a sufficient level of income supporting themselves and their families by doing odd-jobs or working illegally for locals and local companies, enough so that having to relocate for the purposes of accepting a legal job is seen as unattractive.
The problems facing refugee children are particularly dire. There are currently more than 30,000 refugee children registered with UNHCR. Most of these children are of school-going age but less than a third of them have access to any sort of education. Since refugee children cannot attend public schools, they can only receive education through schools set up by partnerships between local NGOs and UNHCR or community-based schools run by the refugee community itself. These community-based schools suffer from a lack of resources, the most important one being that they do not have enough teachers. In a recent news publication by UNHCR, an 18-year old Rohingya refugee named Shamshida, who only started going to school at age 14, provided an insight into the outcomes for refugee children: "My friends don’t go to school, some friends work in the market, some friends are married, and others have to take care of their siblings...I feel sorry for them."
As an economist, I've been thinking a lot about interventions that could help improve the lives and economic standing of refugees in this country. There are already many wonderful local NGOs actively working to help the refugee population in Malaysia. In the same documentary quoted above, Shabbir said the following about his current life situation: "We were extremely persecuted in Myanmar. We have little space to breathe and feel happier here. At least we sleep peacefully. We at least have food to eat here. We were starving to death back in my country." While safety and access to food is a clear improvement over their previous plight, refugees deserve to live lives that extend beyond subsistence wages and poor living conditions. How can we do better?
If it is true that most refugees obtain income from informal channels, and that these channels are controlled by Malaysians, then it must be the case that strengthening refugee ties to Malaysians will have a positive effect on their economic outcomes. It seems that one of the easiest ways to integrate the refugees into the local community is by providing language classes in order to lessen the communication barrier between the refugees and local Malaysians. We think that the most useful language for them to learn would be Malay. This is for two reasons - the first being that most Malaysians speak conversational Malay. The second is that the Rohingya and Malays are by in large Muslim, which is a commonality that the Rohingya do not have with other groups in the country. It may be the case that the wider the network of Malaysians a particular refugee has access to, the better her economic outcome. In return, the Malaysians in the program might learn more about the Rohingyas and their culture, which may lessen the amount of negative bias towards refugees and to a greater extent towards immigrants from low-income countries that is commonly seen in Malaysian society.
To study the effectiveness of social networks on economic outcomes of refugees, we plan on conducting a pilot program implementing randomized Malay language interventions amongst the Rohingya population. To hear more, stay tuned!