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In October, 15-year-old Lian*, a Chin refugee from Myanmar living in Kuala Lumpur, dropped out of school to work. Two of the three income earners in his family of seven had lost their jobs and money ran out for Lian’s school fees of RM 100 (about $25 USD) per month.

“My father asked me to drop out of school because he couldn’t afford to pay my education fees,” says Lian, who hopes one day to serve his community as a musician at his church. Now, he is selling shoes at a shopping mall. He says he misses his teachers and classmates, and the support they gave him to pursue his learning. “During this difficult time, I have to prioritise my family’s livelihood,” he tells New Naratif.

Lian is among 36,300 refugee and asylum-seeking children ages 3 to 17 who are registered with the United Nations’ Refugee Agency in Malaysia, according to a UNHCR spokesperson. In total, there are nearly 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country, of whom just over 100,000 are Rohingya, and a further 53,800 are from other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, including the Chin community to which Lian belongs. Tens of thousands await UNHCR registration and are considered undocumented asylum seekers, according to a 2017 Save the Children report

Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, classifies refugees and asylum seekers as undocumented immigrants. Denied access to Malaysia’s public education system, they attend a parallel system of community-based learning centres, largely run and funded by refugees themselves.

As of the end of October, UNHCR counted 134 community-based learning centres across Peninsular Malaysia that offer access to education for refugee and asylum-seeking children. But only 27 of these learning centres offer secondary education. Ninety of the centres are run by refugees themselves, while 44 are run by UNHCR’s NGO partners or faith-based organisations, UNHCR tells New Naratif.

Community learning centres are often underfunded and under-resourced, leaving students crowded into rented rooms in residential or commercial buildings, with limited furniture and supplies or space for play. During the pandemic, some learning centres moved to even smaller facilities due to funding shortages, and were unable to abide by government social distancing Standard Operating Procedures, forcing them to limit in-person classes even when formal schools were allowed to reopen. 

The pandemic totally destroyed the future for some students. …Refugees don’t have many opportunities, so they just go to work or do what they need to do.

Teachers are commonly community volunteers or refugees themselves, sometimes with limited educational backgrounds or teacher training. There is no standard curriculum and many learning centres do not have the human resources to teach students in the Bahasa Malaysia language. When students graduate, they often do not have a diploma that would help them apply to university.

Like many refugees around the world, Lian was already behind in his education when he dropped out of fifth grade at the Alliance of Chin Refugees Learning Centre. On average, refugee children miss out on three to four years of schooling due to forced displacement, according to UNHCR global estimates from 2016. Lian was three school years behind his Malaysian peers of the same age.

Globally, refugees are also around twice as likely to be out of school compared with non-refugees. According to UNHCR’s analysis of educational enrolment figures across 12 countries from the 2019 school cycle, just over half of the world’s school-age refugees were enrolled in school.

In Malaysia, the figures are even lower. As of the end of October, only 30% of registered refugees and asylum seekers were enrolled in community-based learning centres, UNHCR tells New Naratif. According to UNHCR figures from 2017, while primary school enrolment stood at 44% of refugee children aged 6 to 13 years old, this figure dropped to just 16% by secondary school, for children aged 14 to 17. These numbers do not include asylum seekers whose UNHCR registration is pending, and who are generally less connected to services.

A student sits for exams at a refugee learning centre in Kuala Lumpur run by Kachin refugees from Myanmar in December 2020.

UNHCR noted in 2018 that dropout rates among refugee youth in Malaysia are particularly high due to the cost of studying or the need to contribute to the family income.

As the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated disparities in access to quality education around the world, refugee and asylum-seeking youth in Malaysia are also falling farther behind.

“The pandemic totally destroyed the future for some students,” says Naw Mon, headmistress of the Malaysia Karen Organisation Learning Centre, run by Karen refugees from Myanmar. “Refugees don’t have many opportunities, so they just go to work or do what they need to do.”

She estimates that less than one-third of the students at her learning centre have internet access at home, while others have dropped out for financial reasons. As enrolment falls and few remaining students are able to afford full education fees, the learning centre is now at risk of closing.

New Naratif’s interviews with nine members of the refugee educational community, including a teacher, headmistress, parents, students and community volunteers in Kuala Lumpur revealed similar stories and concerns. They fear the pandemic may cause irreparable damage to the educational outlooks of refugees and asylum seekers, and that an already underfunded and under-supported informal education system may soon collapse.

“When I Have Money, You Can Go Back”

The financial situation has become dire for many refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, which introduced strict coronavirus containment measures in mid-March. By May, when movement restrictions were eased, the unemployment rate across the country had reached its highest level in a decade, although it has since fallen slightly.

Malaysia denies refugees and asylum seekers the legal right to work, leaving most working in the informal sector. On top of pandemic-induced layoffs, an immigration crackdown beginning in May and government warnings against employing undocumented migrants have only worsened vulnerabilities.

Before the pandemic, Shofique, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, had just scraped together enough as a trash sorter to cover the education fees for one of his four children. He chose his third child, and only son, who is 11 years old, while his three daughters, of whom the oldest is 14, stayed home.

If I cannot continue my studies, I will be very disappointed. …I really want to be an educated person rather than an unskilled worker.

Shofique, who did not give a reason for choosing his son’s education over his daughters’, says the girls sometimes practice the alphabet at home, which is as far as their literacy extends.

“My daughters asked me if they could go to school and learn something,” he says. “The oldest one…asked me, and I told her, ‘My daughter, I don’t have money. …How can I afford it? Please forgive me.’”

Shofique came to Malaysia in 2010 from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and paid smugglers to transport his wife and children four years later. The smugglers cheated him, however, holding his family for three months in Thailand before demanding a ransom of RM 6,000 (about US$1,500) for each person to complete the journey. He paid first for his daughters, who were delivered to Malaysia, but it took another five months for him to collect the ransom sum for his wife and son, leaving them in transit for eight months in total.

Shofique’s children were denied a formal education in Myanmar, where they were confined to a camp without freedom of movement. Now, his son’s education is again in peril. Work has become scarce for Shofique, and although the learning centre his son attends, run by the nonprofit Dignity for Children Foundation, has allowed him to pay in instalments, he needs to settle the remaining balance for his son, who is supposed to enter the fifth grade when the next school year begins in January.

“He often asks me, ‘Dad, when can I go back to school?’” says Shofique. “I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, my son. When I have money, you can go back.’”

Girls’ Access Is “Double-Hard”

The coronavirus pandemic now especially threatens education for refugee girls, who already faced intersecting obstacles to obtaining an education due to displacement and harmful gender norms. In Malaysia, although as of 2018, UNHCR found that roughly 47% of refugee children studying at the secondary school level were girls, rates among Rohingya girls were abysmally low. Rohingyas make up more than half of all refugees in Malaysia, but only 5% of refugee girls attending secondary-school-level learning centres as of 2018 were Rohingya. 

The Malala Fund, which advocates for girls’ education worldwide, estimated in September that as a result of COVID-19, half of all refugee girls in secondary school would not return when classrooms reopen. Refugee girls face a particular long-term threat to their education during the pandemic due to financial instability, damaging gender norms, and increased sex and sexual violence, according to a November 2020 report by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Students sit for exams at a refugee learning centre in Kuala Lumpur run by Kachin refugees from Myanmar in December 2020.

For Lu Lu, an 18-year-old Kachin asylum seeker from Myanmar, the pandemic has jeopardised her chances of educational success. The sixth-grade student’s older brother and sister cover her school fees, but their earnings have fallen at the restaurant and beauty salon where they work. “If I cannot continue my studies, I will be very disappointed,” says Lu Lu. “I really want to be an educated person rather than an unskilled worker.”

As of October 2020, there were only 60 refugees known to UNHCR who were enrolled in tertiary institutions across Malaysia. Lu Lu hopes, in the coming years, to be among them.

But studying at home is hard for Lu Lu, with both her and the teacher’s internet unstable. Refugees also commonly live with several families to a single apartment unit, and Lu Lu says that background noise from students’ apartments makes it difficult to concentrate.

According to Zohra, a refugee from Somalia who works at Project Stand Up, an organisation focusing on improving access to and participation in education for refugee girls, many refugee girls in Kuala Lumpur have dropped out of school during the pandemic.

“Particularly for girls, there are things that make it double-hard to access education,” she says. “Girls have more responsibilities at home…and it makes it harder for them to focus on their learning.” Project Stand Up has several initiatives to combat these obstacles, including a youth leadership program and an app connecting volunteers to families needing support with household duties, but the organisation had to suspend most of its activities due to the pandemic. “It has made it harder for us to reach young people, particularly girls, to participate in our programs,” says Zohra.

A Digital Divide

Globally, the pandemic has widened the digital divide between those with access to information and communications technology, and those without. UNICEF, the UN’s child protection and welfare agency, said in November that gaps in internet access along socioeconomic lines are perpetuating educational inequalities and “costing the next generation their futures.”

In Malaysia, where schools were closed from mid-March to July, and went back to online learning in all but three states in November, limited access to internet and devices has been compounded by the social marginalisation of refugees. The Ministry of Education rolled out a digital learning platform in June, along with training and support for educators. Although it is one of the largest nationwide deployments of an e-learning platform globally, refugee learning centres and students lack information about these resources or the ability to access them, as the platform is in Bahasa Malaysia. 

Hopefully the pandemic will end soon and the kids will be able to go back to school. …Now, they’re only looking [at the screen] but I don’t feel the information is getting to them.

Many learning centres have been late to transition to online classes, according to interviews with teachers, administrators, parents and students. Leena, a kindergarten teacher at El-Shaddai Learning Centre, which serves students primarily from Somalia, says unfamiliarity with online learning platforms among teachers and parents kept the centre from offering online classes until late October. Before commencing, she went to each student’s home and helped the parents download and learn how to use Zoom. Still, eight of her former 20 students dropped out, with some unable to pay learning centre fees and others lacking internet access or sufficient mobile devices.

Naw Mon of the Malaysia Karen Organisation Learning Centre describes similar challenges. To accommodate students without a reliable internet connection, her teachers take photographs of school assignments and send them to students over messaging apps, she says.

“They’ve Forgotten Most of the Things We Taught Them”

The importance of parental involvement in education has dramatically increased during the pandemic, according to global research published by UNICEF in April. Omar Yousif, a refugee community advocate and social worker who has been volunteering in refugee learning centres and local nonprofits for six years, tells New Naratif he has seen this importance first-hand among refugees in Kuala Lumpur.

Issues including parents’ lack of availability due to work, limited English skills and weak educational backgrounds have impacted their ability to support their children’s studies, he says. “Parents are saying, ‘Our English is not that strong and we are not that educated, so if our kids ask us [an academic question], we can’t really answer most of the time.’”

Leena, the kindergarten teacher, found when starting online classes that her students had regressed significantly. “I had to go back to the beginning of the lessons,” she says. “All the time [without school], some of them didn’t even open a book. Some parents don’t know English themselves, so there’s nobody to help [their children], and they’ve forgotten most of the things we taught them.”

Parental involvement is also important in keeping younger students engaged with online classes, Leena adds. “Sometimes the students are just there alone, with no parent next to them, so they’re just walking around, going here and there,” she says. We [teachers] feel like we don’t have any control.”

A Chin refugee mother from Myanmar studies at home with her daughter in May 2020 while the girl’s learning centre in Kuala Lumpur was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nasreen, a refugee from Yemen, tells New Naratif that her household responsibilities and limited English skills have served as barriers to supporting her two children, ages 13 and 8, and her nephew, age 11, with remote learning. In the evenings, she tries to review lessons with them, searching for online information in her native Arabic, and often not finishing until midnight. 

The children had already lost two years of school due to displacement, and had just resumed their education in January 2020. “Sometimes, the kids feel so bored and they’re not focused on the teacher,” says Nasreen. “They feel down because they’re not able to understand everything.”

Nasreen’s household has two mobile phones, no laptops and no WiFi, and the children, who go to a neighbour’s apartment for internet access, sometimes miss class when they do not have access to a device. The children often play with the screen or become distracted when people call Nasreen’s phone, interrupting the lesson, the mother adds.

“Hopefully the pandemic will end soon and the kids will be able to go back to school,” she says. “Now, they’re only looking [at the screen] but I don’t feel the information is getting to them.”

“An Ethical Struggle”

While some refugee learning centres receive small grants from UNHCR, most rely on students’ education fees and funding from private donors and religious institutions. They now face a dwindling financial base.

“A lot of schools really rely on student fees, but parents, most of the time, can’t pay the full fees,” says Omar Yousif, the refugee community advocate. He estimates that nearly half of the 150 students at the learning centre where he volunteers, Save School for Refugees, have dropped out. Of the 80 students remaining, few are paying full education fees, with most paying instalments according to what they can afford, he says.

The pandemic has forced many learning centres into a dilemma over how to stay open while allowing students who cannot afford the full education fees to continue attending. “You can’t really say, ‘Go home because you don’t have money to pay.’ This is an ethical struggle. They are nonprofits but they have to pay rent, the teachers [and for] the internet,” says Yousif.

He also worries that with the focus now on keeping refugees from dropping out, educational quality may be compromised. “That is how low quality education for refugees happens. People think, ‘Because he is a refugee, just give him anything.’ But this is not right,” he says.

According to UNHCR’s 2016 education report, education only has a protective effect if it is of good quality, with strong and inclusive policies, and motivated and well-trained teachers. “Quality education is the anchor that will keep children in the classroom, encouraging them to continue to the end of primary school and transition to secondary and beyond,” the study says.

Yousif would like to see UNHCR provide increased coordination and technical support to refugee learning centres in Malaysia, and develop a standard curriculum and online courses that could be accessed on different platforms. He also suggests, if public health guidelines allow, a learning model in which teachers provide smaller, home-based classes for times when it is not possible to gather in large groups. 

Meanwhile, he is concerned that educational disparities induced by the pandemic may have long-lasting effects. “If kids miss education because of the pandemic…[they may not] go back to school, because they feel left behind, or that they are no longer following the curriculum,” he says.

For 16-year-old Nai Htaw, a Mon asylum seeker from Myanmar, the pandemic has cast the future of his education into doubt. The eighth-grade student lives with his mother, and when she lost her job as a waitress, he dropped out of the community learning centre he attended. “If I continue to study, the little money my mom has will run out,” he tells New Naratif. “My dreams have been affected because I had to drop out of school. I wish to become a mechanical engineer, but now I am uncertain what will happen.”

“I really want to go back to school and learn together with my friends,” Nai Htaw adds. “Because of the pandemic…I think I lost my education.”

This article was supported by a grant from ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

*Due to their undocumented immigration status in Malaysia, pseudonyms or nicknames were used for all refugees quoted in this article to protect their identities.

Call to Action: With 134 refugee learning centres in Peninsular Malaysia and numerous nonprofit organisations promoting refugee education, there are many ways to contribute. Here are the websites of some of the organisations featured in this article:

Project Stand Up: Focused on improving access to and participation in education, particularly for girls.

Dignity for Children Foundation: Provides holistic care and early childhood, primary and secondary level education to children of diverse backgrounds, with a focus on breaking the cycle of poverty for urban youth.

Alliance of Chin Refugees Learning Centre: Supports the education of children from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and primarily Chin refugees from Myanmar.

Save School for Refugees: A refugee learning centre in Kuala Lumpur offering early childhood, primary, secondary and adult education.

El-Shaddai: Christian-based nonprofit providing social work services and education to refugees and marginalised communities.

UNHCR Malaysia Refugee School Adoption Programme: Support a community-based school in one or more areas of need for a specified duration of time.

Jaw Tu Hkawng

Jaw Tu Hkawng is from Kachin State and is pursuing a law degree in Malaysia, where he has also been a volunteer teacher at a Kachin community school since 2014. As a writer and activist, he advocates for peace, human rights and education.

Jaw Tu Hkawng berasal dari Negeri Kachin dan sedang melanjutkan pelajaran dalam bidang undang-undang di Malaysia, di mana dia juga pernah menjadi guru sukarela di sebuah sekolah komuniti Kachin sejak tahun 2014. Sebagai seorang penulis dan aktivis, dia memperjuangkan keamanan, hak asasi manusia dan pendidikan.

Emily Fishbein

Emily Fishbein is a freelance journalist focusing on issues related to conflict and displacement, human rights, and social justice in Myanmar and Malaysia.

အေမလီဖိရှ်ဘီမ်း(အ်) သည် မြန်မာနိုင်ငံနှင့် မလေးရှားနိုင်ငံတို့၏ ပဋိမက္ခ၊ စစ်ဘေးရှောင်၊ လူ့အခွင့်အရေး နှင့် လူမှုရေးတရားမျှတရေးနှင့်ဆိုင်သော အကြောင်းအရာကို အဓိကထား လုပ်ဆောင်နေသော အလွှတ်တမ်းသတင်းသမားတစ်ဦးဖြစ်ပါသည်။

Emily Fishbein adalah seorang wartawan bebas yang memfokuskan pada isu-isu yang berkaitan dengan konflik dan anjakan paksa, hak asasi manusia, dan keadilan sosial di Myanmar dan Malaysia.


Benjamin is an amateur photographer in Kuala Lumpur.

Benjamin adalah jurugambar amatur di Kuala Lumpur.