Hasan Al-Akraa was just 12 years old when he stepped off a plane and onto the tarmac at KLIA, carrying his entire life in a couple of bags.
That was in 2012. Now, 10 years later, he is a student and activist but he is also keenly aware of his own history as a refugee and the experiences of others like himself in the country they now call home.
Over the past decade, he has seen some positive changes in how refugees are treated. But still, he knows that the majority continue to be seen as inferior – due in part to Malaysia’s own policies on the matter.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR classifies refugees as those who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed international borders to find safety in another country.
In Malaysia, though, refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers – documented and undocumented alike – are categorised under one umbrella: foreigners or “pendatang asing”.
A glaring example of how many in the country view such communities surfaced shortly after the first pandemic lockdown in 2020, when xenophobic posters were circulated in an anti-Rohingya campaign on social media.
Malicious comments came flooding in, and Rohingya refugees found themselves on the receiving end of harrassment, threats of rape and even death threats by those who believed that they were responsible for spreading Covid-19.
In June last year, meanwhile, the immigration department came under fire from rights groups including Amnesty International Malaysia over a poster warning Rohingya refugees against coming to Malaysia.
The poster, which was later removed from the department’s Twitter platform, showed men in uniform carrying guns with military planes overhead against a backdrop of vessels including a boat packed with what appear to be migrants.
The caption of the poster read: “Migran etnik Rohingya, kedatangan anda tidak diundangi” (Rohingya migrants, your arrival is not lawful).
Davina Devarajan, co-founder of NGO Women for Refugees, said many of the women the group worked with had been affected by the anti-Rohingya campaign.
She also spoke of different levels of discrimination even among the refugees themselves.
“If you are a Rohingya or you have darker skin, you are likely to face more challenges as a refugee in Malaysia,” she said.
Refugees and migrants are also often subject to raids by the authorities, detained and/or deported back to their home countries.
Hasan said he knew of children who had grown up in detention centres, adding that many refugees remain at such facilities today.
“Refugees are still seen and treated as a threat to the nation when all they want is a temporary place to call home where their rights are respected and upheld,” he said.
This is the case even with communities which had spent years or decades integrated into society, he added.
“There are third generation refugee families who were born in Malaysia,” he said.
“They speak Malay fluently, they celebrate Hari Raya and they enjoy eating durian, tempoyak and budu.”
There are an estimated 175,000 refugees in Malaysia at the very least, but the government has not signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol which outline basic human rights for refugees.
This means that they cannot apply for jobs, have no access to public education, and are vulnerable to deportation.
“The refugee crisis in Malaysia has been going on for decades,” Hasan said. “I came to Malaysia when I was 12, back in 2012, and 10 years later the policies have not changed.
“Why can’t refugees have access to basic rights because we are human?”
For him, the lack of concrete policies is the crux of the issue.
“Refugees cannot rely on NGOs and charities all the time,” he said.
“There needs to be a change at the policy level to protect refugees and grant them basic rights.”