'Why does the refugees' children's education matter to us?' by Abdul Razak Ahmad
* This speech was delivered by our Founding Director, Dr Abdul Razak Ahmad at the High-Level Roundtable on Refugee Education: Moving the Agenda Forward organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia on Refugee Policy, the International Islamic University of Malaysia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia in conjunction with World Refugee Day 2022.
For any child, anywhere, education is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. A fundamental right. Access to this right shouldn’t be confined by his or her race, creed or other circumstances of birth. However, the hard truth is that here in Malaysia, there is hardly any space for refugee children and youth in the country's formal education system.
Malaysia has never had a national policy and strategy for the education of refugee children and youth. It is difficult to envision Malaysia’s current situation changing. The issue of language, cultural differences and the huge number of refugees children are some of the challenges that could be used to justify Malaysia’s position.
While we continue to pursue and advocate for a policy shift, we must continue to move forward and explore a less state, more societal approach.
This is the better approach because there is a sense of urgency here. Firstly, global humanitarian needs are at critical levels and rising. 40 million children needed education and humanitarian assistance in 2021. More than half of the world's refugees are children, and if nothing changes, their children will be refugees too.
We can deliver food, immunizations and aid to these children to safeguard their health and keep them alive. But without delivering education, we failed to help in the first place.
Secondly, while the resettlement of those children and youth is being determined per international protection protocols, none should be denied the right to education. What a child does in the future and the potential impact he or she contributes to the world depends largely on the education he or she receives.
Thirdly, Malaysians, not just Malaysia, have the responsibility to provide at least education, to the most destitute, the last, and then forgotten.
How do we move forward?
Since there is no national agency responsible for this humanitarian need of the refugee communities in Malaysia, we need to work together to set up one. It is high time for Malaysia to have a government-supported but privately-led national agency, to provide education to the refugees in Malaysia. This agency could be established as a trust, a corporation or even as a social enterprise.
The mandate is to manage various capacity-building initiatives for refugee communities in Malaysia. And to coordinate the good work of the various civil society in the delivery of education to the refugees' children.
Eventually, this agency could be expanded in terms of role and objectives, and be made the catalyst for the establishment of Malaysia’s International Development Agency, Malaysia's version of international development and humanitarian initiatives like JICA, US AIDS and others.
Malaysia’s foreign policy lacks the soft power dimension and the proposed agency could be the strategy to spearhead Malaysia’s greater and better coordinated international development work.
Second, to support the Agency's activities, the usage of public funds is not feasible. If the government can’t provide the financing, then society must come up with an innovative solution. In the case of Malaysia, it is best to ground a solution in Islamic finance because most of the refugees in Malaysia are from Muslim countries.
We should leverage the resources of the ummah thus Malaysia should seriously consider the creation of global waqf, to support refugees' education. The Global Endowment for Education of Displaced Children should then be managed by the proposed coordinating agency. This fund will then be used to support the Agency's work in education, skills training and other capacity-building projects.
Third, the Ministry of Education allows the proposed Agency to use Malaysia's curriculum to ensure a more structured and globally accredited education system.
Education is the single biggest transformative factor for the individual, the nation and society. Investing in a child's education is not just an investment in his or her future, but also ours.
Societies cannot thrive unless all children and young people have a quality education that provides them with not just academic knowledge, but also an understanding of values.
This captures the essential reasons why we need to urgently respond to the need for more equitable access to education, where absolutely no child is left behind. Especially at a moment when the nation requires a huge pool of talent and pragmatism more than ever. Even more so when society is starting to lose its fabric of humanity and selflessness.