Education for non-citizens in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic

Vietnamese refugees at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia. This camp has about 36,000 Vietnamese refugees. 1/Aug/1979. Malaysia. UN Photo/John Isaac.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted schooling for children worldwide. Most vulnerable are non-citizen children without access to public education.

Refugee and asylum seekers, migrant, stateless and undocumented children in Malaysia have limited access to education despite Malaysia being a signatory to the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC) which recognises the right of every child to education. Unable to enter public schools, non-citizen children are reliant on the informal education system not funded by the state, in the form of alternative or community learning centres.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led non-citizen children to drop out of school so that they can financially support their families. Education was not a priority as the non-citizen community faced job loss, evictions, etc. The pandemic also exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities faced by marginalised non-citizens.

Education is an enabling right essential to escape poverty and deprivation of schooling is harmful to children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. While other children could get a hold of smartphones, for non-citizens children it is considered luxury goods, most non-citizens families have limited access to digital devices and internet connectivity for online learning.

Participants from Sabah and Sarawak confirm that the digital divide is even more pronounced in the interior regions, where poor telecommunications infrastructure had resulted in limited internet connectivity.

Non-citizens living conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic were not conducive for remote learning. The evictions during the pandemic had resulted in refugees staying in crowded apartments, with little space for home learning.

Learning centres had limited resources and many ceased operations. School closures disrupt essential school meals, social interaction and support from peers and teachers essential to a child’s physical and mental wellbeing while exposing children to potentially unhealthy home environments.

The impact of lockdowns is particularly troubling to underprivileged non-citizen households in Malaysia as employment, food and housing insecurity are compounded by increasing xenophobia and scapegoating of migrants exacerbating pre-existing economic and social inequalities

Non-citizen children may lose out on learning opportunities due to a lack of stable internet connections, data and digital devices like computers, tablets, and mobile phones. Poor telecommunications infrastructure in rural and remote regions exacerbates digital inequalities

Abrupt policy change (on-line learning & school closure), without supporting systems, may cause more long term damage (school dropout/poor learning outcomes) than the potential short term health damage it COVID-19.

The Malaysian government should take active responsibility in ensuring the Right to Education for all children in the country.

Ref: Education for non-citizens in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic authored by Dr Tharani Loganathan, Derick Z Chan, Fikri Hassan, Watinee Kunpeuk, Rapeepong Suphancanchaimat, Huso Yi and Associate Prof. Dr. Hazreen Bin Abdul Majid