Questions to ask ourselves

In our previous post, we shared an article published by our team on the Refugee Initiative Law blog.

To follow up that post, we thought it suitable to post these questions:

  1. What do these simple acts say about the refugee community?
  2. Is the Malaysian public wrong in their perception of the refugee community?
  3. Should refugees be given the legal right to work in Malaysia while waiting to resettle elsewhere?

Our intention isn’t to guilt anyone into supporting the rights of refugees instead our intention is to encourage an open discussion between the different stakeholders of the refugee crisis i.e. host government, host communities, business community, NGOs and civil societies, and REFUGEES themselves, to adapt our approach to the ever-evolving refugee crisis. ©

Malaysia’s Invisible Community Contributors of COVID-19

It should be noted that this blogpost is originally published on the Refugee Law Initiative blog.

From the onset of Malaysia’s first Movement Control Order (MCO, 18th March to 3rd May 2020) as a means to control the spread of COVID-19, not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises have been on the ground providing and assisting the refugee community with basic necessities such as food and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They have also responded to more strenuous issues such as the community’s sudden loss of income (as all non-essential sectors were required to shut down or move online for the entire duration of the MCO) and subsequently, their inability to pay rent.  

Under the #kitajagakita (#wecareforourselves) umbrella, the organisations and enterprises’ burden to provide necessities such as food and PPE have reduced. The #kitajagakita is a “one-stop shop” platform that matches those who want to help with those in need. #kitajagakita shares a verified list of Malaysian civil societies that need immediate financial and humanitarian aid and/or volunteers to assist throughout the pandemic. For instance, Beyond BordersEarth HeirMSRIPichaEatsRefuge for RefugeesTanma and Yayasan Geutanyoe share the types of aid needed on behalf of the refugee community in Malaysia. However, merely supplying the refugee community with food and PPE is insufficient as it only perpetuates the (mis)perception that refugees are victims and economic burdens to the host communities.  

Although it is widely known that Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol nor does its Immigration Law 1959/63 recognise that ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ differ from ‘illegal economic migrants’, Malaysia is both a transit point and the main destination for many refugees across the ASEAN region and beyond. As of August 2020, Malaysia temporarily houses 178,140 registered refugees and asylum seekers (153,340 from Myanmar and 24,700 from 50 different conflict-affected countries) and many more unregistered refugees and asylum seekers who all live in a Protracted Refugee Situation.  

As such, the refugee crisis in Malaysia is not a new social ill caused by COVID-19 but is an invisible social ill made visible by the pandemic. In the past eight months since the first COVID-19 cluster emerged in Malaysia, the refugee community made international headlines as the website removed five anti-Rohingya petitions as the petitions incited hate speech, Amnesty International criticised Malaysia’s decision to turn away a number of boats, each carrying approximately 200 refugees from Bangladesh, from landing on the shores of Malaysia, and as international communities condemned Malaysia’s decision to continue its crackdown on undocumented migrants during the nationwide lockdown. These issues further perpetuate the difficult position of refugees in Malaysia who already face the lack of rights to work, education, and healthcare.  

Despite it all, the refugee community is working alongside not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises to care for Malaysians, especially on the frontliners during the pandemic. In collaboration with the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network, Beyond Borders, ElShaddai Centre and the ZazaMovement by PichaEats, skilled and experienced refugees cook and deliver homemade food to the frontliners. Besides that, alongside Earth Heir, ElShaddai Centre in partnership with the Hazara Women Empowerment Centre, and Yayasan Geutanyoe, skilled refugee tailors are producing PPE for frontliners and other Malaysians. These seemingly simple examples demonstrate that refugees are in fact skilled and experienced individuals who, if given the opportunity would contribute to the host communities. In 2019, IDEAS and ISIS Malaysia concluded in their respective reports that granting refugees the legal right to work in Malaysia will have a significant positive impact on the country’s economy. It will also provide the government, not-for-profit organisations, the business community and other stakeholders a better comprehension of who refugees are, how refugees can be community contributors to the Malaysian society, and how, as a collective, we can manage the crisis.  

Therefore, part of our project’s (Sustainable Assistance for Vulnerable Communities in Asia: The role of private sector actors in managing the refugee crisis in Malaysia) objective is to prioritise refugee-led discussions and collaborations as we outline a livelihood framework for the refugee community in Malaysia. To do so, we created the Do You See the Empty Chair? virtual platform to provide refugees the opportunity to be visible actors in shifting the refugeehood narrative in Malaysia and to demonstrate that refugees are qualified and experienced humans who can be positive contributors to the Malaysian community, if granted the opportunity. Concurrently, we are interviewing not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises to better understand how they manage the refugee crisis with sustainability in mind. © 


C’s Micronarrative

C is a refugee who unwillingly left her mother country because her life and the lives of her immediate family (two children and husband) were constantly at risk.

Having to start afresh in a country that does not recognise her claim for refuge nor her human right right to work, C has encountered many challenges as she strives to provide for her family. Some of the challenges include her initial inability to speak Bahasa Malaysia (BM – Malaysia’s national language), her lack of qualification as she was two years into her university degree as an English major when she was forced to leave her home, and her husband’s inability to find informal employment in Malaysia because he knows neither English or BM.

Therefore, as the sole breadwinner of her family, C knew that the part-time jobs she undertook – a server at a gambling shop and juice bar, cleaner, and staff at a retail shop – would be insufficient for her to provide for her family. Moreover, these forms of informal employment required her to travel during the early hours of the day or the late hours of the night which put her at greater risk of being arrested and/or detained by the Malaysian authorities, leaving her family without a provider.

The question many Malaysians would ask then is “why did C choose to flee to a country that isn’t a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees?” There are many answers to this question but put it simply – family network. C’s extended family (parents and siblings) have been living in a Protracted Refugee Situation in Malaysia for more than 20 years. Although it has not been easy for C’s extended family either, they have a good network of friends – fellow refugees and locals alike – who have made their protracted lives easier. And it was through C’s family network that she met a kind individual who took notice of C’s fluency in the English language and connected her to a not-for-profit organisation in which C is now an English teacher.

C shared with us that she was initially posted to a madrasa where BM is the more prominent lingua franca, to teach English and when her students discovered that C could not speak in BM, the students put aside their cultural and linguistic differences to collaborate and teach her BM as she taught them English. At the end of her posting at the madrasa, C was able to converse in BM courtesy of her little translators.

Amazed by her students’ proactiveness and desire to help their teacher, C is now an advocate for all children to have access to education.

She shared with us two instances where she advocated on behalf of two female students whose families pulled them out of school because they were eligible to marry (i.e. they reached puberty). When C approached the families of these two students, they shared with her that to allow their daughters to continue their education would be a waste of money as they had younger children to care for. However, as someone who is from a culture that practices child marriage and married at a young age herself, C was determined that these two students would not share the same fate as her. She fearlessly advocated for their right to education and successfully secured full scholarships for both female students to complete their schooling.

C’s passion for education is evident in the stories she has shared but also in her desire to remain within the education sector, even if she is granted legal rights to work in Malaysia. Moreover, her community contributor story reminds us that if given the opportunity to learn and work, refugees are determined to positively contribute to the societies they reside in. ©

B’s Micronarrative

Previously hired for their tailoring expertise in Malaysia, B lost their job when the first Movement Control Order was implemented and remains unemployed throughout this tumultuous year. B also shared that their Protracted Refugee Situation has been made worse by the added discrimination they experienced from Malaysians and refugees themselves.

The lack of ‘community’ has left B feeling isolated and purposeless as they aren’t able to network with other refugees to form a sense of belonging and find employment. Their micronarrative is simple yet it highlights the consequences of being socially incompatible with the more dominant groups of refugees in Malaysia.

While sharing their micronarrative, B emphasised a hope that the local and refugee communities would give them the opportunity to positively contribute to the Malaysian society. After all, B is an experienced tailor and housekeeper, and aspires to develop their skills and knowledge so that they can be a better qualified community contributor.

In conclusion, though B’s micronarrative is short, it perfectly exemplifies why we – the host community, policymakers and private sector actors – need to include refugees as visible actors and agents of change in mitigating the refugee crisis.©

Why is SUSTAINABILITY important in mitigating the refugee crisis?

The refugee crisis in Malaysia is not a new social ill caused by COVID-19 but was an invisible social ill made visible by the pandemic.

From the onset of Malaysia’s first Movement Control Order (MCO), not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises have been on the ground providing and assisting the refugee community with basic necessities such as food and PPE, and more strenuous issues such as the community’s sudden loss of income and subsequently, their inability to pay rent. Furthermore, despite the government and UNHCR’s plea for refugees who attended the Sri Petaling Tabligh event and/or who display COVID-19 symptoms to visit their nearest healthcare centre to be tested, many refugees refused to as they were more fearful of the circular 10/2001 than coronavirus itself.

These events clearly demonstrate the negative impact of the host community’s past actions which include:

  • Ad hoc policies and responses to the refugee crisis
  • Humanitarian-only focused actions to mitigate the refugee crisis, and
  • The decision to deny refugees’ their right to work, right to education and right to healthcare.

Indeed Malaysia has the sovereign right to decide whether to be a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, however with the COVID-19-related economic crisis, Malaysia might want to reconsider adopting a more sustainable approach in managing its growing refugee crisis.

Sustainability’, in Refugee Studies, is defined as the development of long-term and adaptable solutions that will meet the needs of the present and accommodate for the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and the ever-evolving refugee crisis.  Simply put, managing the refugee crisis in a “more predictable, systematic and sustainable” way would include

  • Recognising that refugees are capable of being human capitals
  • Identifying the needs of potential host communities
  • Assessing the best fit approach(s) to develop refugees’ abilities and opportunities, and
  • Designing a skill-matching or job-matching to effectively incorporate refugees into the host communities.

To proceed, we need to first identify the refugees’ existing livelihood framework in Malaysia which is why we established this platform to encourage refugees to share their community contributor stories.©


Al-Husban, M. & Adams, C. 2016. Sustainable Refugee Migration: A Rethink Towards A Positive Capability Approach, Sustainability MDPI, Open Access Journal, 8(5), 1 – 10. URL:

Schlein, L. 2019. ‘Global Refugee Forum Seeking Sustainable Solutions for Refugees, Host Countries’, VOA News, URL:

A’s Micronarrative

Imagine if you didn’t go to school or if I was lazy in school, I would not be able to teach those people”.

A constantly finds herself reimagining the situation she is living in now – a Protracted Refugee Situation in Malaysia for the past five years and counting, and is grateful that her schooling experience in the Middle East has equipped her with the knowledge and skills to be a community contributor in Malaysia.

As an English teacher to migrant and refugee children and ladies who are beginners, A credits her right to education, in the Middle East as it was in school that she discovered her love for the English language. Moreover, A highlights that it was by teaching her own mother and mother’s friends to read, write and speak in English that showed her how teaching and literacy empowers an individual.

As a refugee herself, A understands her students’ deep desire to learn the English language simply to survive in Malaysia. Prior to being a full-time teacher, A shared that while working part-time in the hotel industry, she encountered much discrimination from her fellow colleagues and employers. She thought that if she learned to speak Malay (which was the common language spoken amongst the colleagues and employers), they would see her as a human who was doing everything within her control to integrate into the local community. However, learning basic Malay did not allow her to form healthy relationships with her colleagues and/or employers, instead it simply allowed her to better understand the discriminatory words spoken to or about her.

Therefore, A is ever grateful for the happenstance event that led her back into the classroom. A describes that she had been observing an English-speaking woman attempting to communicate with a group of women who only spoke in Arabic and/or Somali, in English. She quickly thought to herself, I speak three languages – English, Arabic and Somali” and offered her help to translate on behalf of both groups of women. Soon after, the English-speaking woman asked A to assist her as a translator first and then as a teacher herself.

Unfortunately for A, she is unable to further her studies in Malaysia but we asked her if she was granted the right to education and work in Malaysia, what would she do? A shared that she would love to further her studies in Business as she dreams of opening up a restaurant and retail shop wherein her family could share homemade food while she indulged in her passion for fashion. And if that was not possible, she would pursue her studies in Nursing so that she can earn money by caring for newborn children and with that money, she would be able to open up the restaurant and retail shop. Very quickly, we realised that A, just like many of us Malaysians, have dreams for our future. Unlike us, A isn’t allowed to pursue those dreams at the moment.

Nonetheless, A has not allowed her Protracted Refugee Situation and COVID-19 to keep her from contributing to the community. During the global pandemic, A has been attending weekly Zoom sessions where fellow refugee teachers gather virtually to share and support one another through this abrupt online learning journey. Collectively, A notes that they have helped one another to improve in their communication with their students, in their lesson preparations and in their aspirations to become better teachers.

A hopes that by teaching her students the English language, they will be empowered to be community contributors in their temporary and/or resettled homes. She hopes that through education, she can empower her students to prioritise kindness, understanding and no judgement when dealing with different groups of people. And A hopes that by sharing her community contributor story that other girls in similar situations will be empowered by the fact that they are not alone. Lastly, A hopes that by sharing her micronarrative, Malaysians are better informed that if you give them (refugees) the chance to work, they will. If you give them the chance to learn, they will … the chance to make friends, we will because at the end of the day, like Malaysians – refugees are humans too. ©

Why is the ‘refugee crisis’ an economic matter?

In 2019, IDEAS and ISIS Malaysia published a report, each, on the economic impact of granting UNHCR-registered refugees the right to work in Malaysia.

Collectively, the reports concluded that there remains a demand for workers in Malaysia and presently, this demand is met through the employment of legal and illegal economic migrants while a community of UNHCR-registered working-age refugees remain unemployed and in a protracted refugee situation (i.e. ‘limbo’) in Malaysia. Indeed, there is an overwhelming concern that if refugees are granted the right to work, they will jeopardise the growing rate of unemployment amongst Malaysians. However, ISIS Malaysia concluded that the relatively small number of working-age refugees and the type of jobs they will secure will have no significant effect on Malaysians seeking for employment.

If refugees are granted the right to work,

  1. they will have a higher spending power and subsequently, be able to contribute approximately RM3 billion to Malaysia’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2024,
  2. their tax contribution will increase to more than RM50 million each year, by 2024, and
  3. they will potentially create 4000 job opportunities for Malaysians alone.

Besides that, a long-term investment in the education for refugee children and an assurance that their access to education is on par with Malaysian children will potentially allow for refugees to contribute over RM6.5 billion to Malaysia’s annual GDP by 2040 with a yearly tax contribution of more than RM250 million.

Lastly, by granting refugees permission to work in Malaysia, we will have better documentation of the refugee crisis and its community thereby, providing the government, not-for-profit organisations, the business community and other stakeholders a better comprehension of WHO refugees are, how refugees can be community contributors to the Malaysian society, and how, as a collective, we can manage the crisis. ©


Bedi, R.S. 2018. UNHCR: Allow refugees to stay and work in Malaysia. Available at: (Accessed: 30 April 2020)

Collier, P. & Betts, A. 2017. Why denying refugees the right to work is a catastrophic error. Available at:,sense%20of%20alienation%20and%20hopelessness.&text=However%2C%20the%20truth%20is%20that,complex%20and%20diverse%20economic%20lives. (Accessed: 30 April 2020)

IPSOS. 2019. ‘World Refugee Day: Global Attitudes Towards Refugees’, URL:

IPSOS. 2020. ‘World Refugee Day: Global Attitudes Towards Refugees’, URL:

Lee, C.C. 2006. ‘Refugee Policy is a Realist’s Nightmare: The Case of Southeast Asia’, Migration Letters, 3(2), 137-149. URL:

Mancini, F. 2018. No Common View: Asian Ambivalence Toward Refugees. Available at: (Accessed: 30 April 2020)

Mathew, P. & Harley, T. 2014. ‘Refugee Protection and Regional Cooperation in Southeast Asia: A Fieldwork Report’, The Australian National University, URL:

Todd, L., Amirullah, A., & Wan, Y.S. 2019. ‘The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia The Right to Work’, Policy Ideas No. 60. URL:

Yasmin, P.N.A., Daniel, T.B., & Fauzi, N. 2019. ‘Granting Refugees Permission to Work in Malaysia’, ISIS Malaysia National Interest Analysis. URL:

The difference between an ‘ETIC’ and ‘EMIC’ perspective in Refugee Studies

Refugee Studies is any activity that entails knowledge creation, data collection and data analysis with and by displaced people.

Like other research subjects, Refugee Studies does not exist in a vacuum outside the social world therefore it is not a neutral subject nor is its researchers or research participants. Yet the research designs and processes in the Refugee Studies literature review is hyper focused on the idea that refugees are ‘invisible actors’ and a source of investigation.

The gap in the literature review is probably due to the imbalance power relations, between the researcher and research respondents, manifested in the research design, process, and dissemination. Traditionally, Refugee Studies researchers adopt an etic perspective to investigate the refugee crisis as many of these researchers are predominantly from the Global North and/or exist outside the refugee community. As such, the problem with the etic perspective is that it is saturated in cultural bias, ethnocentrism and paternalism, and researchers who adopt this perspective commonly use refugees as tokens to validate their investigations.

On the other hand, some researchers argue that if researchers engage with the refugee community as visible actors and agents of change, the emic perspective may stimulate better communication between researchers and the researched community, and encourage the development of insider knowledge. As such, Refugee Studies will greatly benefit as the active voices of refugees will challenge the stereotype about the refugee community and encourage more knowledge creation about refugeehood. ©


Behnam, N. & Crabtree, K. 2019. ‘Big Data, Little Ethics: Confidentiality and Consent’, Forced Migration Review 61, 4-6. URL:,and%20vulnerable%20people%20at%20risk.

Dona, G., Esim, C. & Lounasmaa, A. (2020). ‘Qualitative Research in Refugee Studies’ in Atkinson, P., Delamont, S., Cernat, A., Sakshaug, J.W. & Williams, R.A. SAGE Research Methods Foundations. London: SAGE Publication Ltd. DOI: 10.4135/97815264210361

Harrell-Bond, B. & Voutira, E. 2007. ‘In Search of ‘Invisible Actors: Barriers to Access in Refugee Research’, Journal of Refugee Studies 20(2),281-298. DOI: 10.1093/jrs/fem015

Kabranian-Melkonian, S. 2015. ‘Ethical Concerns with Refugee Research’, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 25(7), 714-722. DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2015.1032634

Refugee Studies Centre. 2007. ‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice’, Refugee Survey Quarterly 26(3), 163-172. DOI: 10.1093/rsq/hdi0250

Temple, B. & Moran, R. 2007. ‘Doing Research with Refugees: Issues and Guidelines’, Journal of Refugee Studies 20(4), 673-674. DOI: 10.1093/jrs/fem043

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