KUALA LUMPUR, July 13 (Bernama) -- Being in a foreign land and with an uncertain future, the refugees in Malaysia have to work their way to survive.
"They are very hard working, doing odd jobs or taking up whatever work opportunity available. This is one thing that makes them good for resettlement," said Alan Vernon, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.
"It would be a great idea to allow them to work formally. It would save money because they are already here. The refugees want to contribute to the country and support the society because they have a place to stay here," Vernon said.
"However, they do not get the opportunity to do so legally as they cannot obtain a work permit," he said, commenting on some suggestions to allow refugees in Malaysia to work.
He said there is a stiff competition for employment opportunities as the refugee community is mostly concentrated around Kuala Lumpur, and to this Vernon suggested they should be dispersed around the country.
"The bulk is in Kuala Lumpur. We would like to move them out and the best way is by legal work opportunity. They can work in plantations, in manufacturing and in construction. There are many economic opportunities in other areas and that would decongest Kuala Lumpur. The group is hungry for work. They make very good workers because they know they have to survive," Vernon said.
According to Vernon, some of the refugees have very good skills useful to the Malaysian employers.
Better control and regulatons over the refugees' situation, in particular the employment issue will help avoid exploitation.
"We have to start today. Lets see if we can find a way to make the refugees more self reliant in terms of work so they don't create a burden and a situation where we will have social problems," Vernon said..
"If people have a job they are not going to get involved in illegal activities. Their number may go up and may go down but it is better to have a policy and some system in place for dealing with the issue in a predictable way so that it can be properly managed," he said .
Priority for children
There are some 19,000 refugee children below the age of 18 registered with the UNHCR. Some 10,600 of these children are of school-going age. Nevertheless, it is estimated that less than half of refugee children of school-going age have access to any form of education.
"I have many concerns over the refugees but their children are the priority. Children need to be educated. If they don't get education, this robs their future and could create social problems later on. The Malaysian government has allowed the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide education for refugee children. That is a good thing," Vernon said.
However, he told Bernama of the insufficient means and resources faced by the NGOs in providing the necessary education for the refugee children.
As such, the refugee communities themselves have organised education programmes for their children.
"Children who do not get educated are going to face a lot of difficulty in the future. They may end up with social problems in the future. So we rather have them educated so they can contribute to their community and when they return home they can be a contribute to their society and that can be a positive contribution from Malaysia in helping Myanmar, for example," Vernon said.
More to be done
The UNHCR is hopeful that it can work more closely with the government, the NGOs and the public to help improve the quality and access to education for the refugee population.
"They did not choose to come to Malaysia. You can say their parents made a choice but not their children so for them we need to work together to try to improve the conditions for them. And there is a role for everyone, there is a role for the government, a role for the NGOs, a role for the volunteers and also a role for the United Nations," Vernon said, adding there is also an important role for the refugees themselves.
The UNHCR initiatives
Where children's education is concerned, the UNHCR has made inroads in getting more refugee children to attend school. From about 2,500 in 2008, the number has currently increased to about 4,700.
The UNHCR is also working with its NGO partners in training the teachers and to date has trained more than 120 teachers.
The UN body also provides books, stationeries and other school supplies besides getting volunteers' support for the schools as well.
"All these are efforts to create a school system for the refugees. They cannot go to the government school. Even if the government opens up the schools for the refugees, of which I think is possible, not all will go because of the language barrier and also the fact that many of the children have missed school for many years," Vernon said.
He said that the challenge remains to find an appropriate education programme for a diverse population.
There are about 60 refugee community schools initiated by some refugee groups besides those managed by the UNHCR and several NGOs with the majority of them scattered around Kuala Lumpur.
The schools are often very small and set up at locations where the refugees are present.
The refugees, according to Vernon, are reluctant to move around as they face a lot of constraints, including money for transport.
"Schools are not really schools. Very often it is just an apartment space. As for the syllabus, we try to use the Malaysian curriculum but they also have some of their own cultural studies in anticipation of going hom," Vernon said..
"The students also get language studies, some English, some Bahasa Melayu. Other subjects are math, science, history and social studies. Quality of schools vary from very good to not very good but we find ways to improve them," he said.
Helping them to help themselves
The UNHCR also has a team to help set up a leadership structure within the refugee community.
"We try to work with all of them and try to encourage them as much as we can but I have to be realistic. Some groups are better than others. Some groups easily form a group and organise themselves, others struggle with it. Some are more tolerant in having their women participating in leadership structures than others who think that is a bad idea," Vernon said.
He too commented on some adverse publicities on some refugee groups but the number involved is small.
"The group here does not want to get into trouble because they know that their situation is fragile and they cannot turn to their government for help. So I rarely find refugees getting into trouble but you do have a larger migrant population and with such a big number you are going to face social problems. It is inevitable I think," he said.
Note above the law
Vernon said the UNHCR has always taken efforts to ensure that the refugees stay away from trouble and respect the local laws.
"A refugee is not above the law. If they break the law they can be charged under the law like the rest. The UNHCR identification document offers no immunity. They have to follow the law, they have to recognise that their presence here are not something that they can take for granted," Venon said..
"They are guests in a foreign country and they need to behave as a guest. They should not make the Malaysian people feel threatened or unhappy on their presence," he said.