Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Kristen Gray, Counseling and Psychological Services; Kasey Stevens, Phelps Scholars Program

Document Type


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This project investigated challenges refugee and asylum-seeking children in Malaysia encounter in obtaining primary and secondary education. The obstacles covered in this study fall into three categories: legal and governmental failure to protect refugees and asylum-seekers, Malaysians’ ignorance and prejudice, and weaknesses in existing educational systems. Because Malaysia does not recognize refugee rights as defined by international law, its domestic legislation treats asylum-seekers like illegal immigrants, without regard for often markedly different circumstances of arrival. Legal indifference is reflected in general ignorance among Malaysians about what refugees are, breeding fears about “threats” they pose to the economy and public safety. Because Malaysian law prohibits refugees from attending public schools, primary and secondary education for these children are provided solely by non-governmental organizations. However, the lack of adequate funds and manpower limits the effectiveness of these informal schools. Drawing from library research, interviews, and personal experience volunteering in refugee schools, this research focused on how such barriers affect these displaced communities, but also how children and their families respond with resilience. For example, NGOs work with refugee communities to establish learning centers and offer vocational training for teenagers. Some students go on to take international high school exams, such as the British-based IGCSE, and receive scholarships to enroll in private colleges and universities around Malaysia. Arts also become a catalyst for empowerment: through plays, poetry competitions, and music recitals, young refugees assert their capability and initiative. Clearly, this issue is not uniquely Malaysian: displacement is a global phenomenon, education is a universal children’s right, and the current United States administration has taken a harder stance on DACA. In the face of substantial ignorance and growing hostility towards refugees, it is crucial for host populations to understand the complexities surrounding displacement and learn to respond with sensitivity and compassion.