The issue of primary and secondary school access for refugee learners in Peninsular Malaysia has received some public attention. But with a minority of refugees arriving or graduating with secondary school diplomas, an equally important question to ask is: What comes next?
“Remember that I promised to bring you for dim sum?”
After receiving her final-year results in 2020, Zahra* saw a WhatsApp text from her Biomedical Science professor, Dr Amal*, whom Zahra affectionately calls cikgu in Malay and who chose to celebrate her student’s first-class results with dumplings and desserts at Putrajaya’s Marriott Hotel.
“This is too expensive! In Malaysia at most I’ll go out for Maggi noodles—at a Mamak shop!” Zahra protested in delight.
Together with another professor, they chatted over lunch about Zahra’s hopes and dreams and reminisced about their time together. They then strolled around the capital city. It was her first time seeing Putrajaya’s government complexes, mosques, and lakes.
This was one of Zahra’s most cherished memories as a university student.
But the route to university for Zahra had been long and agonising, a labyrinthine journey that began when she first arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, after fleeing religious persecution in the central region of Pakistan.
“Are you a local or international student?”
“What is this refugee thing?”
“No, we don’t have courses for refugees and asylum-seekers.”
Those were just some of the things university administrators would say.
Two and a half years of admission refusals from eleven universities on the basis of Zahra’s displacement status, with no consideration of her actual academic performance or grades, pushed the straight-A student to the brink of giving up.
Zahra’s case is by no means unique. This explainer spotlights five obstacles standing in the way of refugee learners who wish to access higher education in Malaysia. It looks at the value of building access to education for refugees, different access-building initiatives launched by civil society organisations, what an ideal higher education policy could look like, and immediate ways readers can help.
But first, let’s zoom out to the broader context.
Refugees living in Peninsula Malaysia are ethnically, linguistically, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse. There are over 180,000 refugees in Malaysia, including Rohingya, Chins, Kachins, and other ethnic groups from Myanmar; Pakistanis, Afghans, and Sri Lankans from South Asia; Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Saudi Arabians, and Palestinians from West Asia; and Somalians from the Horn of Africa. They seek refuge for different reasons, including the fear of persecution, war, or extreme socioeconomic harm.
But regardless of origin or identity, when seeking sanctuary in Malaysia, they all encounter the same problem—in particular, a lack of legal protection. Malaysia has no laws related to the category of “refugees”, resulting in authorities treating refugees as illegal immigrants. Even though the government allows the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate, the intergovernmental organisation’s work is limited as there is no formal asylum system in place in the country. For example, while the UNHCR issues refugee cards to those it determines to be in need of international protection, these cards do not grant its holders the right to abode, work, or access basic healthcare and schooling. In practice, refugees live in precarity, constantly vulnerable to arbitrary abuse, arrest, and detention by immigration authorities.
Despite viewing Malaysia as a place of transit (a temporary stop before resettling to third countries like the United States, Canada, or Australia), most refugees often end up stuck in Malaysia in a “protracted situation”. This situation is defined by the UNHCR as when large groups of refugees are exiled for five or more consecutive years and deprived of their most fundamental rights. Without legal rights, refugees then have to rely on a UNHCR with limited resources and other cash-strapped civil society organisations, refugee-run associations, and individual donors to secure basic access to food, healthcare, and education. Refugees in Malaysia are hence subjected to a kind of precarious benevolence: an unsustainable compassion that hinges heavily on the efforts of civil society that is never guaranteed, certain, or officially deployed as rule and right. Naturally, most refugees would rather be working, paying taxes, contributing to society, and living without fear of sudden arrest or deportation. However, they are prevented from doing so by their lack of legal recognition.
The primary and secondary education outlook for refugees in Malaysia, as previously reported by New Naratif, is thus disheartening. Denied access to government-funded schools, primary and secondary refugee learners only have the option to attend under-resourced and volunteer-driven community learning centres. According to UNHCR Malaysia, 1,707 refugee learners are currently enrolled in these learning centres. This means that only 27% of refugees between the age of 14-17 are currently studying, which is three times lower than Malaysia’s secondary school enrolment rate. As of last year, 27 out of 134 learning centres offered secondary education.
Against the backdrop of limited opportunities, the refugee agency estimates that only some 200 refugee learners graduate from high school every year. Notwithstanding the number of students who arrive with foreign high school certificates—which is difficult to determine as no such data is systematically collected—it is thus likely that only a small but growing number of refugee learners possess the qualifications and aspiration to pursue higher education, which encompasses tertiary-level technical, vocational, or academic learning.
For Zahra, although these numbers are small, building higher education access is as important as primary and secondary school access because it would provide younger students a sense of continuity to grow and aspire.
“Many refugee youth possess wonderful abilities and talents,” says the university graduate. “But without future opportunities, many end up giving up on their dreams. Everybody who has the right skill, character, mindset, and attitude should be able to enter higher education.”
Providing support to refugees, in this case higher education opportunities, is also a win-win for both refugees and host society. Helping refugees learn and grow ensures that they can better contribute to the tax base, support industries, and enrich university life in host societies without needing to rely on handouts. The cost to allow refugees to study in Malaysia would also be minimal as knowledge is not a finite resource. Just because a student “consumes” learning does not mean that educational opportunity is no longer there for the next student. A lecture has the same value whether five people or five hundred people listen to it; digital textbooks can be infinitely reproduced with no loss of the quality of its content. The marginal cost of adding 200 extra high school graduates per year to a total tertiary student population of over 1,325,699 is negligible. But even if education had a significant cost, investing in higher education opportunities for refugees—who are often capable and determined individuals shaped by the hardships they have gone through—can provide immense economic, technological, and social development benefits for the host community.
Refugee learners, however, find it very challenging to access higher education meaningfully, facing bureaucratic, financial, institutional, social, and psychological obstacles.
Higher Education Labyrinth
As the government classifies refugees as “illegal immigrants”, universities in Malaysia wishing to admit qualified displaced students fear that doing so could lead to an immigration crackdown, or, for private institutions, the revocation of education licences. Immigration authorities also require non-Malaysian university students to possess a valid student visa, but under conventional practice, the visa must be obtained prior to entering Malaysia. Advocates and refugee-admitting universities have in the past negotiated a verbal “gentlemen’s agreement” with authorities to allow refugee learners to apply for the visa within the country, so long as they have a valid passport, but that agreement is no longer in practice. Many refugees, like the Rohingya, are also unable to fulfil the passport criteria, and understandably so, as they are not recognised by their own state. A few refugee-admitting universities have also told New Naratif that they received warnings from immigration authorities to halt accepting refugee students, on the basis that the students entered the country without a valid permit and are not studying with a student visa. Operating in a legal grey zone and climate of fear—or, in more forceful terms, where providing education could be deemed a crime—universities must therefore use discretion on whether and how to admit refugees.
After speaking to a range of sources, I have identified only 10 private higher learning institutions that are currently enrolling refugee students. For context, there are 447 private higher learning entities in the country. As far as can be determined, no public higher learning entities have enabled access. However, as universities may face repercussions for accepting refugees, they understandably do not publicise their refugee admissions policy. Advocates or civil society organisations are also in the grey area of the exact figure of refugee-accepting higher learning institutions (different figures have been given to me). It is entirely possible that more institutions accept refugee students, but the fact that the universities have to hide this information is itself troubling.
“Even if universities have goodwill, funds, and scholarships, they’re afraid that the government will chase and close them down,” explains Sofia*, a Pakistani refugee learner and final-year Business student.
“They don’t want to risk losing their licence,” says a staff member* from a refugee-admitting university, who was unsuccessful in convincing another institution to open refugee access.
On top of visa woes, refugees who completed secondary studies in their origin countries may also need to enrol with certified transcripts, securing which is difficult to prioritise when fleeing danger and next to impossible after they have fled the country. For refugees who successfully complete university studies in Malaysia, the bureaucratic struggle may also continue if institutions in their next country of residence require university certificates to be attested by the Malaysian government.
Tuition, accommodation, and living costs in private universities can be prohibitive too. For example, standard full-time undergraduate tuition fees for refugees can range from RM10,000—RM100,000 per academic year (USD2,500–USD25,000) depending on the type of course and availability of scholarships. Thus, akin to the dilemmas of any low-income family, higher education for refugees is not an unmitigated good, as they must carefully weigh the financial and opportunity costs in pursuing higher education. Refugees must also consider whether obtaining a higher education degree would realistically pave the path to formal and stable employment in Malaysia, which is by no means a matter of course as the government does not recognize their legal right to work. What’s at stake is often the rice bowl of the family.
While amassing displacement-based admission rejections, Zahra, the eldest of three, found work as a teacher at a refugee learning centre that provided her with a small but fixed monthly stipend. The job was crucial as it complemented her elderly mother’s precarious 12-hour long hotel dishwashing and housekeeping work and her 14-year-old brother’s equally long waitering shifts. Relying on the informal economy, the two respectively earned MYR 20 and MYR 30 per day, which was less than 60% of the legal minimum wage at that time. Living on such tight margins means that refugees like Zahra face a terrible conundrum. Education is supposed to be a pathway towards getting a better job and a better life, but given that there is no clear path to formal employment for refugees in Malaysia, should they still go for a degree, considering all other personal/social costs and benefits?
Thus, when she heard about a scholarship for eligible refugees, instead of feeling jubilation, Zahra was worried about her financial responsibilities to her family and her large education gap.
“If I stopped working, Mama and Daddy would struggle to look for odd jobs. My mum started to feel sick too. She was not able to work. When Dad arrived, he was diabetic. His health was fluctuating a lot.”
Despite these concerns, Zahra received unwavering support from her family members, especially her younger sister, who encouraged her to “Go for it!” whenever a higher education opportunity appeared.
In August 2017, blissful screams of disbelief shook Zahra’s home when she received a congratulatory e-mail granting her a tuition and accommodation scholarship for a degree in Biomedical Science. The eleven admission refusals, nerve-wracking assessments, and interviews were in the past now. She ultimately managed to meet her and her family’s living cost needs through multiple short-term work stints during school breaks and a small financial blessing from a compassionate individual.
“I felt that I was young again, that I achieved my dreams. As a highschooler, you would say, I wanted to be this and that,” Zahra describes. “That [aspiration] vanished from 2014 to 2017. I stopped thinking of my goals. I just spent the days following the flow. The acceptance was a beautiful moment.”
Given the climate of fear and the absence of long-term staff, universities may not always have a welcoming infrastructure for refugees, and in particular refugees have identified institutional, social, and psychological barriers preventing a continuous and enabling education environment for displaced learners to thrive.
The efforts of a professor and a vice chancellor resulted in Zahra’s university creating a refugee programme. But starting in 2016, when the two ardent supporters left, appetite for the program slowly diminished as immigration authorities came knocking, culminating in the eventual termination of the programme.
Sofia felt this first hand too, after the first mover of her university’s refugee programme departed. “Dr. Khairy* placed so much effort into the programme. After he left, nobody took on the responsibility,” Sofia says. “We felt invisible.” Sofia says she wished her university took more responsibility for the personal and emotional development of its refugee scholars, who by definition, all had already lived with the trauma of being a refugee.
Out of security concerns, Sofia’s university agreed not to publicise the refugee status of students, but the staff violated the understanding. Recalling an incident that left her feeling distrustful of the institution, Sofia adds: “A week after Dr. Khairy left, we had to stand in a line to sign a contract. Then an admin lady saw me get into line, who then yelled, ‘Refugees form a separate line from local students!’” The refugee students felt fearful that they would be exposed.
Refugee learners also highlighted social challenges: cliques in their universities would form exclusively on ethnic and linguistic lines, and some classmates held resentment against refugees.
Brang*, a Kachin learner who pursued a foundation course, enjoyed the “crazy culture” of university hackathons, but struggled to find belonging because of the university’s ethno-linguistic divides.
“Sometimes I felt alienated. I was social but didn’t have many close friends. Most of the Malaysian Chinese population were more comfortable speaking in Chinese. The Chinese were with their Chinese friends, the Malays were with their Malay friends. I was never really in any circle,” the recently resettled 24-year-old recalls.
Fortunately, Zahra was able to form lasting relationships in her university, especially with her professors, but she also recounts hurtful comments made by an acquaintance who was unaware of her displacement background: “Zahra, if I know that there is a refugee student studying in my class, I will go and fight with the management of the university. Why are you discriminating against us? This is so unfair. They must be kicked back to their own country!”
This incident, which happened early during the term, gave her insights into the potential perils of revealing her refugee identity.
The final part of the labyrinth is psychological. Speaking from observations of her Somalian refugee classmate, Sofia highlights the importance of addressing the mental health struggles of refugee students, especially those who multi-task between work and studies.
“She was facing financial problems,” Sofia says, detailing the experiences of her former classmate, who lived in a crammed apartment with her elderly grandmother, her sister, and another Somalian family.
“The university promised to provide us with a living allowance, but after we got in, they backed out. Since she didn’t get it, she was working part-time at a Chinese restaurant,” Sofia recalls, adding that restaurant customers would racially and verbally harass her for being Black and Somalian. “I can’t calculate the stress she was going through. She failed almost all her subjects because she couldn’t focus. She left after one semester.”
Why Build Access?
“Build” is used here to signal how disassembling the labyrinth for posterity requires reflection, solidarity, and hard work—a mindset of collective builders.
Sharul*, a 19-year-old Myanmar Muslim, cites four reasons why he wants to pursue higher education: expand job prospects, make friends, grow knowledge, and bring pride to his parents. “I tell myself every day, finishing university, just like finishing high school, is an achievement that can make myself and my parents proud.”
Higher education may also provide refugee learners a degree of protection from displacement-induced socioeconomic vulnerabilities. Of course, the potential of higher education also depends on the economic and opportunity costs incurred, the infrastructure of welcome in universities, and the post-study work environment. In a context where many refugees, like Zahra and her family, rely on the informal economy to survive, the potential of higher education can be more fully realised if concurrent efforts are made to also build and protect refugees’ right to work.
“If you help five, ten refugees get qualifications, what they can do is give back ten-fold, hundred-fold, and help their community,” elaborates Brang. He is now pursuing a law degree and hopes that his life can inspire his younger Kachin cousins “to make the right decision in their lives”.
What would supporting refugees actually mean for local communities? Zahra’s early acquaintance held a common zero-sum game misconception, which is that providing support to refugees, and in this case higher education opportunities, would inevitably discriminate against locals especially in a context where resources are scarce. Refugees gain, and host society loses, so the view goes. But refugee alumni, whose lives and networks span many different geographies, would also eventually become holders of knowledge and social capital that host governments, university staff, and university classmates can eventually tap into.
Carrying enriching life experiences, refugee learners do often bring immediate reciprocal gains to universities too. In collaboration with Dr. Amal and others, Zahra organised trips for professors and university mates to refugee learning centres to expose younger children to science experiments and equipment. The programme was popularly received and gratifying for many professors.
“One professor called me yesterday wishing to invite refugee schools to a programme, asking for recommendations. Even after I’m gone, there is continuation and connection,” says Zahra, who also successfully published biomedical research with fellow professors.
“It’s not a one-way street,” Zahra gently reminds.
Knowing the importance of supporting the education lives of displaced students, in March 2022, the Times Higher Education also started evaluating universities worldwide in terms of their support for refugees through their University Impact Rankings, providing an opportunity for universities to be rewarded for doing what’s right. But why should universities only do the right thing if they are rewarded for it? Ultimately, any discussion of how universities, economies, or societies “benefit” from feeding, sheltering, and educating refugees obfuscates the fundamental point that taking care of refugees is the right thing to do and should be done regardless of whether there is any “benefit” to be gained.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also asserts that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” As explained, refugee learners in Malaysia are judged for admission based on their ability to provide bureaucratic documents or pay expensive fees instead of their academic and experiential accomplishments.
While Article 26 standards are far from met globally, Malaysia’s burgeoning higher education ecosystem possesses a growing capacity to provide the small number of refugee learners education opportunities. Between 2004 to 2014, there was a remarkable 70% increase in total higher education admissions in Malaysia. According to the Ministry of Education, 44% of Malaysians between the ages of 17 and 23 were enrolled in the country’s higher learning institutions in 2019, significantly higher than the 14% figure in the 1970s and 1980s. Holding up this right for all is possible if universities collaborate, pool resources, and share responsibilities.
Ongoing Access-Building Initiatives
On a policy level, in 2019, civil society groups submitted a whitepaper to the previous Pakatan Harapan government, recommending that private learning institutions be allowed to accept the UNHCR refugee card as a valid admission document. The proposal remains unacted upon.
On a preparatory level, academics and advocates formed an initiative in 2016 called Connecting and Equipping Refugees with Tertiary Education (CERTE) to mentor refugee students and equip them with transferable skills and useful information to prepare for higher education. They organise annual “bridging” courses for prospective students.
On a direct access level, Fugee, a non-profit championing refugee access to high-quality education, launched a crowdfunding campaign last year to establish the Fugee HiEd Scholarship. It grants high-achieving refugee learners a sum of RM5,000 (USD1,250) per annum to cover online or in-person undergraduate tuition fees at any stage of their studies, and provides them with mentorship, counselling, and technical training. Five scholarships were awarded in January 2022 to learners from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Palestine.
One scholar, Khalil, was on the verge of quitting university because finances were strained after his father contracted Covid-19 and passed away. With the HiEd scholarship, the Palestinian learner will now be able to progress with his degree in Computer Science and specialise in the sought-after industry of user-experience. He also sees the scholarship’s mentorship program as a golden opportunity to build a solid career roadmap.
Indicative of a growing higher education demand, the inaugural scholarship response saw 324 individuals expressing interest, 129 meeting eligibility requirements, 38 submitting applications, and 15 called for interview.
Dr. Gul Inanc, Co-Director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies and Director of Opening Universities for Refugees, a regional initiative financing Malaysia’s CERTE program, also suggests that Malaysian universities can offer public courses on refugee issues: “People always fear the unknown and identify asylum-seekers and refugees as ‘illegal migrants’ and ‘potential criminals’ unfortunately. This is not unique to Malaysia. The way the media (both local and global) stereotypes and promotes xenophobia is not helping. Universities are the only safe spaces where these important issues can be discussed with an inclusive approach.”
A former CERTE participant, Zahra now works as a high school science teacher and provides mental health support to refugee women in distressed situations. She continues to advocate for higher education access for refugees and dreams to pursue a PhD to become a “more successful biomedical scientist”.
After Zahra’s visit to Putrajaya, she was further honoured as her university’s valedictorian. Dr. Amal unfortunately passed away soon after, but her actions have clearly left an imprint on Zahra, who used to tell the late cikgu that her existence makes an unpleasant world beautiful.
Imagining an Inclusive Refugee Higher Education Policy
Recently, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) on Refugees, a bipartisan group of parliamentarians, started working on a policy that would grant refugees the right to seek formal employment in Malaysia. This policy, if enacted, could be potentially far-reaching for both refugees and host society as experts say it could unlock RM 152 million (USD 34 million) in annual tax revenue for the government and alleviate the issue of wage stagnation in Malaysia. It would, however, be short-sighted to only address the issue of refugees’ right to work, as refugee families do not only comprise workers and labourers, but also children, teenagers, and university-hungry high schoolers who also equally deserve the chance to learn, grow, and contribute. What then could an ideal, inclusive, yet feasible refugee higher education policy look like?
Any policy around refugees would first require a fundamental shift in how Malaysia’s policymakers, universities, journalists, and citizens view refugees. It would first require moving away from one-dimensional views of refugees as takers, as begging bowls here to leach away valuable resources, to seeing refugees as complex people and potential givers with the capacity to enrich our economic, cultural, intellectual, and social lives—if only we let them. After all, refugees are, by definition, resourceful survivors who have acquired invaluable skills, wisdom, and grit from the immense hardships they have gone through. Much can be gained by learning from the life experiences of Zahra, Brang, Sofia, Sharul, and Khalil, and including them in our societies.
Moreover, to foster a genuinely inclusive higher education space for refugees, we must work towards long-sighted, integral, and protection-focused political reforms that address not only refugees’ right to education, but their right to legal identity, to work, and other basic rights as well. While integral and deep reforms are key, there are immediate actions—drawn loosely from UNHCR’s 2022 ‘equal opportunities’ paper—that the government and higher education institutions can undertake to address the five concerns raised by refugee learners:
- Decriminalise refugee higher education by allowing Malaysian universities, especially private universities, to enrol refugee students, as suggested in the 2019 whitepaper proposal by civil society.
- Develop flexible procedures for credential recognition of incomplete academic credentials acquired in one’s country of origin. Ideas can be drawn from the recently piloted UNESCO Qualifications Passport (UQP) in Zambia that aims to establish a global mechanism to support recognition of the qualifications held by refugees and asylum-seekers.
- Develop flexible Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) procedures that recognize non-formal and informal prior learning of refugees through interview-based documentation. Malaysia’s government and higher education institutions can learn from the different RPL models that France, Finland, Turkey, and Norway are currently undertaking for refugee newcomers.
- Build new or existing information hubs where aspiring refugee learners can access up-to-date information about available higher education opportunities.
Offer fee exemptions or scholarships to refugee students through creatively sourcing funds. This could be done through traditional fundraising methods, crowdfunding, or other creative means. There is no lack of generosity among individual Malaysians when it comes to supporting the welfare of refugees in Malaysia. One recent initiative, the Refugee Emergency Fund, is an example of a successful crowdfunding initiative that pools resources together from different individual donors for emergency medical, rental, food and education cases of the refugee community in Malaysia.
More initiatives like that can be cultivated to bolster higher education opportunities for refugees. In Canada, university students are allowed to democratically campaign to create a small levy fee—often amounting to the price of a cup of coffee—collected from each student’s annual fees to help create opportunities for fellow refugee newcomers. After every few years, students would be given the opportunity to revote on whether they want to renew the levy. Imagine the possibilities if each student at a Malaysian university of 10000 students provides MYR 1 (USD 0.25) every year to sponsor a refugee student’s education. That would amount to a sizable MYR 10,000 a year.
Indeed, levy initiatives could also provide for any marginalised student—both refugee and local—completely based on need, perhaps by switching between each group every year. In exchange for funding, scholarship recipients could be asked to pay-it-forward through volunteering their time, wisdom, and skills to enrich university and local communities (ie. mentoring younger students, creating intercultural learning opportunities as Zahra has done).
- Collaborate with refugee-run and refugee-supporting organisations and academics to create programs to increase the awareness and knowledge of displacement issues among university staff.
- Collect enrolment information of refugees in a standardised, protection-sensitive format to help design future evidence-based university and government policies.
- Invite refugee-run and refugee-supporting organisations to create intercultural exchange opportunities between longstanding residents and refugee newcomers.
- Collaborate with scholars working on migration and refugee issues to create short and publicly available courses on displacement and refugee issues, as suggested by Dr. Gul Inanc.
- Ensure that in-house university psychologists and mental health professionals are well-equipped to meet refugee students where they are at, recognising the trauma that they may be going through because of their displacement histories and the socioeconomic challenges they may be facing living as refugees in Malaysia.
- Ensure that new refugee students are aware of the psychosocial resources available in each university early on in their academic journeys.
Immediate Ways Readers Can Act
Contribute to Fugee
Fugee is still raising funds for its HiEd Scholarship. At the time of writing, they have only met 34% of their fundraising target. Readers can contribute at the button below to send a message of solidarity to Fugee workers and refugee learners.
Readers with an educator’s heart for youth may want to reach out to CERTE to offer refugee learners mentorship or workshops. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to express intent.
Using the policy recommendations above, those in Malaysian universities can speak to peers and professors on how your university can build an infrastructure of welcome for refugee learners. Others may want to speak to potential levers of change who can help build access, such as local assembly persons, Members of Parliament, or decision makers in the Ministry of Education, Foreign Affairs, or Home Affairs.
Finally, let us never forget that refugees are people, like you and I, and we should never let fear, artificial scarcity, or narrow-minded nationalism come between us and doing the right thing.
*Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the names of refugee learners, university staff, and universities have been omitted or changed, except for the HiEd Scholarship recipient. Five refugee learners and seven higher education advocates and staff were interviewed for this article.
This article is supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Grant C12.22_2021.