Blog post by Michelle Low, a research assistant at Monash University’s Global Asia in the 21st Century Multidisciplinary Platform. She is currently working on the ‘Sustainable Assistance for Vulnerable Communities in Asia: The role of private sector actors in managing the refugee crisis in Malaysia’ project.


From the onset of Malaysia’s first Movement Control Order (MCO, 18th March to 3rd May 2020) as a means to control the spread of COVID-19, not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises have been on the ground providing and assisting the refugee community with basic necessities such as food and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They have also responded to more strenuous issues such as the community’s sudden loss of income (as all non-essential sectors were required to shut down or move online for the entire duration of the MCO) and subsequently, their inability to pay rent.  


Under the #kitajagakita (#wecareforourselves) umbrella, the organisations and enterprises’ burden to provide necessities such as food and PPE have reduced. The #kitajagakita is a “one-stop shop” platform that matches those who want to help with those in need. #kitajagakita shares a verified list of Malaysian civil societies that need immediate financial and humanitarian aid and/or volunteers to assist throughout the pandemic. For instance, Beyond Borders, Earth Heir, MSRI, PichaEats, Refuge for Refugees, Tanma and Yayasan Geutanyoe share the types of aid needed on behalf of the refugee community in Malaysia. However, merely supplying the refugee community with food and PPE is insufficient as it only perpetuates the (mis)perception that refugees are victims and economic burdens to the host communities.  


Although it is widely known that Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol nor does its Immigration Law 1959/63 recognise that ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ differ from ‘illegal economic migrants’, Malaysia is both a transit point and the main destination for many refugees across the ASEAN region and beyond. As of August 2020, Malaysia temporarily houses 178,140 registered refugees and asylum seekers (153,340 from Myanmar and 24,700 from 50 different conflict-affected countries) and many more unregistered refugees and asylum seekers who all live in a Protracted Refugee Situation.  


As such, the refugee crisis in Malaysia is not a new social ill caused by COVID-19 but is an invisible social ill made visible by the pandemic. In the past eight months since the first COVID-19 cluster emerged in Malaysia, the refugee community made international headlines as the website removed five anti-Rohingya petitions as the petitions incited hate speech, Amnesty International criticised Malaysia’s decision to turn away a number of boats, each carrying approximately 200 refugees from Bangladesh, from landing on the shores of Malaysia, and as international communities condemned Malaysia’s decision to continue its crackdown on undocumented migrants during the nationwide lockdown. These issues further perpetuate the difficult position of refugees in Malaysia who already face the lack of rights to work, education, and healthcare.  


Despite it all, the refugee community is working alongside not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises to care for Malaysians, especially on the frontliners during the pandemic. In collaboration with the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network, Beyond Borders, ElShaddai Centre and the ZazaMovement by PichaEats, skilled and experienced refugees cook and deliver homemade food to the frontliners. Besides that, alongside Earth Heir, ElShaddai Centre in partnership with the Hazara Women Empowerment Centre, and Yayasan Geutanyoe, skilled refugee tailors are producing PPE for frontliners and other Malaysians. These seemingly simple examples demonstrate that refugees are in fact skilled and experienced individuals who, if given the opportunity would contribute to the host communities. In 2019, IDEAS and ISIS Malaysia concluded in their respective reports that granting refugees the legal right to work in Malaysia will have a significant positive impact on the country’s economy. It will also provide the government, not-for-profit organisations, the business community and other stakeholders a better comprehension of who refugees are, how refugees can be community contributors to the Malaysian society, and how, as a collective, we can manage the crisis.  


Therefore, part of our project’s (Sustainable Assistance for Vulnerable Communities in Asia: The role of private sector actors in managing the refugee crisis in Malaysia) objective is to prioritise refugee-led discussions and collaborations as we outline a livelihood framework for the refugee community in Malaysia. To do so, we created the Do You See the Empty Chair? virtual platform to provide refugees the opportunity to be visible actors in shifting the refugeehood narrative in Malaysia and to demonstrate that refugees are qualified and experienced humans who can be positive contributors to the Malaysian community, if granted the opportunity. Concurrently, we are interviewing not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises to better understand how they manage the refugee crisis with sustainability in mind.    






The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.