At the heart of Kuala Lumpur's golden triangle — known as the city's commercial, shopping, and entertainment hub — lies a row of shoplots situated at the back of Berjaya Times Square
What seems to be a regular row of guesthouses, inns, and budget hotels also houses a community of Myanmar refugee children.
This humble two-storey refugee learning centre called the Peace Education Centre (formerly Shalom Education Centre) hosts approximately 40 refugee students, about half of whom are boarding students who live in the centre, and the remaining day school students who attend the centre for their education.
29-year-old Julian, who runs and supervises the Peace Education Centre seven days a week, is well acquainted with the struggles of refugees from Myanmar.
A refugee himself, Julian fled his home country at the young age of 22
Like many other Myanmar refugees, he fled persecution and military control by paying an agency with savings that his uncle helped gather. Through the agency, he embarked on a risky eight-day journey that started from his village, through the borders of Myanmar, into Thailand, and then finally into Malaysia.
Upon arriving in Malaysia, Julian reported to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, where he was interviewed about why and how he came into the country for validating and recording his arrival.
He then waited approximately three months before he secured a follow-up appointment that eventually led him to securing a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) card.
Throughout the three months of waiting, he lived remotely in a small, quiet village with his uncle's family who are UNHCR registered refugees
Because Julian was yet to be granted his UNHCR card, he was unable to go out and lived in fear of being caught by authorities. He relied on his host family to provide him with food, shelter, and a sense of security.
Upon receiving his UNHCR card, he moved to the city and managed to secure himself several odd jobs throughout his years here. Aside from his day job, he is also an interpreter for other Myanmar refugees, and he volunteers his time teaching refugee children.
It was through the early volunteering efforts that led him to run his current refugee centre.
Julian took over the current Peace Education Centre four years ago after the initial founder of the centre was resettled in the US by UNHCR.
It has been seven years since he came into Malaysia, with just a card that barely has legal significance, his only hope is to get resettled to a country that would grant him refugee status.
Today, he continues to run the centre, working with his partners, and volunteers while also committed to his daytime job and interpreter duties.
While Julian has managed to make a living for himself here, the reality of the situation is that refugees are not legally recognised in Malaysia
While we host 1,78,140 refugees and asylum seekers from countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and others, we are not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its Protocol.
Hence, we do not abide by a national system or framework that regulates the rights of refugees.
The lack of a legal framework on refugee issues bring about a state of limbo and dire consequences for a country that hosts three million migrants, 1.9 million of whom are considered illegal (Malaysia law makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants).
As such, refugees are vulnerable to arrest for immigration offences, they may be subjected to detention, prosecution, whipping, and deportation.
To add to the complexity of this issue, the sheer number of documented and undocumented foreign workers, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers moving in and out of the country have made Malaysia an ideal hotspot for human traffickers.
As recently as 2019, a syndicate trafficking Rohingya into Malaysia with a fake UNHCR card was arrested following police raids on three locations within George Town, Penang. The tragedy in situations like these is that the trafficked victims are usually not exempt from legal consequences, hence adding to their plight.
There is no denying that this is a complex issue that requires years of commitment and intervention from multiple different stakeholders
We must also establish a robust framework that meets both our domestic and refugee needs.
However, turning a blind eye by pushing away refugee boats that arrive at our shores or neglecting basic access and rights of those who have already arrived is not a solution and puts Malaysia at a greater risk.
It is important to acknowledge that while we are not directly responsible for the plight of these refugees, the moment they arrive at our borders, it becomes our responsibility to ensure the right resources are allocated to these communities to safeguard them from being left on the streets or exposed to other national security vulnerabilities such as being trafficked or targeted as recruits by terrorist organisations.
The centre continues to provide dignified living and education for all of its children
With the grace of Julian's effort and the goodwill of volunteers and his trusted partners, the Peace Education Centre has been doing their best to push through this pandemic.
If you would like to get in touch to support the centre or donate to the centre, you can do so by getting in touch with them via their Facebook page or you can directly contact the centre via +6018-2322011.
This story is the personal opinion of the writer. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]