As of last month, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, commonly known as UNCHR, The UN Refugee Agency, reported that there were about 179,570 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia which comprised of 154,840 people from Myanmar, while 24,730 other refugees and asylum seekers came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Yemen and other countries.

Clearly, many Malaysians have questioned why we should reach out to refugees instead of our own people, especially during this pandemic. Let’s put it this way: similar to how we all didn’t ask to be stuck in this pandemic, none of them wished that they’d become a refugee. In simple terms, refugees are those who flee their home country as they fear persecution. Just like us, they’re human beings with families too, who long for stability, safety and happiness. As another World Refugee Day came and went, we thought we’d highlight three things you might not know about them:

1. Refugees are not here for economic reasons

Photography: Pixpoetry/Unsplash

One of the biggest misconceptions that people have towards refugees is that they’re here to share the ‘cake’ with us. “They’re not economic migrants and they’re not only made up of the poor and underprivileged,” shares Sharenia*, an operations manager at an organization for refugees. One of the main things that people should understand is that refugees are here because they’re fleeing armed conflict or persecution as explained by the UNHCR. At the same time, if you’re already wondering about the impact that can be caused if refugees are taken into the local workforce, think again. Based on a report presented by the Institute of Demoracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), if refugees are given equal opportunity and allowed to enter the workforce, we might be able to see a positive impact on the economy and public finances. The NGO estimates that they’d be able to contribute to the growth of our annual GDP, which can eventually lead to public finances through their tax deductions that will benefit all of us.

"We came to Malaysia in February 2014 as we had to flee our country, Myanmar, due to the war, hate crime and discrimination going on there. We were all alone in a foreign country, scared and unfamiliar with everything, and all we had was one another. Carefugees was a light in our lives; a saviour when we were at our lowest. The organization gave us education, a job for my mum and equipped us with all the necessities that we needed. I still remember how ecstatic I was when Maya, one of the Carefugees committee members bought my brother and I some colouring books and storybooks to read. My message to refugees reading this is to hang in there because after the storm comes the rainbow. Although I may not know or understand what you're going through, I’d like you to put your trust in Allah, believe in yourselves and hang in there, because I believe in you,” – Jack*, a 14-year-old refugee

2. It’s very difficult for them to find a way in life

Photography: Radek Homola/Unsplash

While many people believe that when one door closes, another will open, that isn’t the case with refugees. “People assume that refugees will get resettled and have comfortable lives in another country, but the truth is, less than 1% of refugees are resettled each year. Resettlement depends on the number of places offered by third world countries and is prioritised for highly vulnerable refugees and those in need of urgent protection. The screening processes are strict and highly controlled. Refugees can spend years in limbo while seeking resettlement, among them children who’ve never known the meaning of a permanent home,” says Annie*, who works with refugees locally. For instance, based on a report published by Al Jazeera on 16th October 2020, more than 3,200 Syrian refugees were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia but only 122 have been resettled to other countries since 2017.

3. Malaysia is the only country that openly receives refugees

Photography: Katie Moum/Unsplash

People think that refugees can strategically pick where they’d like to live and seek protection. However, unlike migrants, refugees would usually choose neighbouring countries to flee prosecution. In an article published by National Geographic in 2019, the main difference between migrants and refugees is the fact that refugees leave their homes permanently whereas migrants can still retain protection from their home country. If you’re wondering why Malaysia has a high number of refugees and why other countries aren’t doing anything to help, here’s a fun fact: in an article published by MalaysiaKini in 2020, out of the 25.9 million refugees around the world as of June 2019, Malaysia only hosted 0.7 per cent of this total number. According to UNHCR, the countries who are currently hosting the most number of refugees are Colombia, Germany, Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda. So, the next time the question pops up, know that we’re playing a very small role and trying to do our best to offer what we can to this group of people.

*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Featured image: Matteo Paganelli/Unsplash

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