Interview with Billy Stelljes Asia Pacific Islamic Philanthropy PSP Officer

March 26, 2021

Thanks to generous funds donated through the Refugee Zakat Fund, we have been able to assist thousands of beneficiary families across countries in MENA, Asia and Africa during 2020.

In an interview with Billy Stelljes, our Asia Pacific Islamic Philanthropy Officer, he explains how UNHCR is responding to the needs of refugees and displaced families in his region and how the growth of Islamic Philanthropy is transforming the lives of displaced persons in different parts of the world, many of which are even more vulnerable as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. What is the current situation of the refugee population? There are currently 170,000 refugees in Malaysia, 45% of which are women and children who are in desperate need of support to cover rent, hospital bills and education expenses. Due to legal restrictions and the lack of skills, refugees cannot find work and study in Malaysia making it difficult to earn income to sustain themselves – causing the cycle of poverty to deepen.
  2. Can you describe the current situation in your country of operation? Malaysia has experienced 2 major lockdowns – limiting movement and the opening of non-essential services for several months at a time. This has caused massive reductions in employment opportunities and income for many of the refugees rendering many of them financially incapable of covering rent, food and medical expenses for themselves and their families.

    Many of the children could not go to our alternative learning centers due to the lockdown which has decelerated a lot of the progress made to date. Medical centers across the country were 90% filled due to Covid 19 cases causing the government to issue Budget 2021 as a re-stimulus package to get the economy back up and running.

    However, we anticipate only until 2022 for the situation to stabilize due to the vaccine roll out and the stimulus package being set in phases throughout the year.

  3. How is UNHCR responding to the current crisis?
    On education – due to the lockdown many of the schools were closed and those that were opened had to operate under very strict social distancing protocols. With these standards – many refugee children could not to go to school and would lose out on the progress made thus far. So UNHCR Malaysia has bought 2,000 laptops/tablets -including data plans, trained over 800 teachers, and developed solid e-learning curriculums to help bring education back to these refugees.On Healthcare -UNHCR continues to extend considerable efforts – closely with its partners – to provide alternative healthcare. An NGO partner clinic provides integrated primary care services in Kuala Lumpur, including mental health services, community health education and second line treatment, but this is far from addressing the comprehensive needs of the refugees in Malaysia.

    On Registrations – many of the refugees find that their UNHCR cards will expire soon or they have scheduled interviews with us at our Kuala Lumpur office but they are located in another state and cannot come to us due to the closed borders. To solve this, UNHCR Malaysia is building outreach centres in Johor Bahru and Penang to accommodate high concentrations of refugees in these states with their concerns and card renewals.

    Refugees want the same things we all do – a safe place to sleep, good food, medicine if needed and a good school for the children.”

  4. What is the biggest challenge right now?

    Lack of funding is a big issue as many of them have fallen into deep poverty and have no way to get of it. The general theme of support has been directed towards the locals only as encouraged by the issuance of Budget 2021. This does not mean its impossible to get funding, but it does mean it’s a lot more difficult.
  5. How will this affect refugee families? 

    Refugee families would now have to live below their usual means. Refugees who were already marginalized will become much more marginalized and many of them will need therapy in the process to cope with the stresses of COVID 19.

  6. What are the implications of the lack of support/ funding 

    Lack of funding means we will not able to fund the e-learning curriculum and all the gadgets needed to make it happen. This means refugee children in Malaysia will be left behind in their studies which could seriously harm their future careers and progression to secondary/tertiary education.It also means that they will not be able to afford medical treatments and medicines they need to get better. This will lead to more illnesses and increase the recovery period significantly. Refugees will focus more on the essentials such as rent and food before medicines which puts that at more risk especially if they need these treatments.

  7. How can people help? 

    I always look at help in 2 distinct ways;Raise awareness – if you’ve got a big following – spread the word. If you’re a big corporation that’s well connected with other corporations and you organize webinars often – why not invite us to speak and share a small part about we’re doing to help the refugee population in Malaysia. This also helps add value to your organization or personal brand as you align yourself with the number 1 refugee agency in the world and show your solidarity with the refugee cause.Make a financial contribution – this can be done as one-off grant or can be raised via crowdfunding mechanisms.

    The truth of the matter is it costs to save lives and we’d love for you to be a part of the solution to help make the difference. Most of the refugees are already living far below their means in Malaysia – so every bit counts.

  8. What is the message you would like to voice on behalf of those in need in your country of operation? Especially for refugees and displaced families? 

    Refugees are human too, they all want the same things we all do – a safe place to sleep, good food, medicine if needed and a good school for the children. They are most grateful for any contributions given to them because they know how difficult it is to earn income.When I spoke to refugees in Malaysia, they tell me how grateful they are to be in Malaysia and how amazing the Malaysian people are. They would very much like to contribute back if they were given a chance.