By Allen Ng
Sabah is the poorest state in Malaysia. Of the 3.2 million people who make up its population, more than 30,000 are children who are not recognized as citizens of Malaysia – or any other country. These are the children and grandchildren of refugees and migrants from neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines. Many of them live on the street, and have very little access to social services and education.
In recognition of the situation, the Sabah Community Development and Consumer Affairs Ministry announced on March 9th that it will soon propose solutions to legalize these children. The ministry, however, ruled out the granting of citizenship as one of its solutions. The large presence of foreigners has been key source of social tension in Sabah, with street children in particular labeled as a negative social element by local politicians.
“For now, it’s premature to announce our recommendations, but issuing citizenship and permanent residency will not be part of it,” said Community Development and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Jainab Ahmad during the announcement. Instead, the focus will be on absorbing the stateless children as legal foreign workers when they reach adulthood.
Without citizenship, Sabah’s stateless children have no access to basic human rights. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), stateless children, through no fault of their own, inherit circumstances that limit their potential. Besides being denied access to education and healthcare, these children are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including being trafficked, forced into hazardous labour and sexual exploitation. They are not even recognized as minors in the eyes of the law.
Last year, UNICEF celebrated its 67th anniversary with a dedicated focus on birth registration. In Malaysia, UNICEF called on the government of Malaysia, civil society organizations and other stakeholders to step up collaborative efforts to achieve universal birth registration for all children.
“UNICEF’s position has always been that every child should have a nationality. Without a nationality, they are practically invisible and without any form of state protection,” said Selvi Supramaniam, a child protection specialist from UNICEF Malaysia, on the situation in Sabah.
Despite the enormity of the issue, official effort to address it has been limited. A plan by the Malaysian Federal Government late last year to issue birth certificates to the stateless children of Sabah was thwarted after meeting intense criticism from local politicians and the local communities.
The large presence of undocumented Filipino and Indonesian Muslim migrants is a politically sensitive issue in Sabah, with its mainly non-Muslim natives. In 1969, civil war broke out in the southern Philippines, driving Muslim refugees to Sabah in the decades that followed. At the same time, Indonesian workers also began to move to Sabah, looking for work in the timber industry and on oil palm plantations. According to the official census, the number of Filipino and Indonesian migrants has quadrupled in the last half century. They now make up more than a quarter of the population. Children of these migrants, many of them who live on the street, have been blamed by local politicians for the social ills of the state, including the high incidence of street crimes.
“The absolute ruling-out of giving citizenship to these children seems particularly cruel, and is not even justified,” said Catherine Allerton, an anthropologist from the London School of Economics. Allerton, who has studied the lives of children of refugees and migrants in Sabah, believes that these children are wrongly demonized as an anti-social element. In her view, after conducting fieldwork in the state a couple of years ago, the children are hard-working and have a fondness for and attachment to Sabah, despite the way they are treated.
“My personal view is that the only way to address this issue is for Malaysia to wake up to its responsibility to children born in Sabah to parents who are working hard supporting Malaysia’s economic growth,” she said.
Joti Kohli, Executive Director of Voice of the Children, a children’s rights advocacy group in Malaysia, is also skeptical of the directions taken by the government. She feels that public resources could be better spent in creating awareness and coming up with long-lasting solutions that would genuinely protect the rights of stateless children.
“We need to end the whole vicious cycle of statelessness, extreme poverty and human insecurity for these children,” she said.
The Sabah state government could not be reached for comment.
Allen Ng is an economist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He wrote this story as a student in U.C. Berkeley’s Journalism for Social Change online course on EdX.