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10 Facts About Malaysia’s “Invisible People” – The Stateless And Undocumented

One stateless child is born into the world every 10 minutes[1]. In 2016, there were at least 290,000 stateless children in Malaysia[2]. The prevailing issue related to the data on statelessness is the lack of accurate and timely information on the community – and the numbers are often based on the guess-estimates of changemakers working with the community.

Regardless of their numbers, they are living amongst us. Yet they cease to exist legally in the country they were born in as they do not carry an identification card or MyKad. From 2015 to June 2020,  31,494 citizenship applications for persons under the age of 21 were received[3] and their fate is still up in the air.

The stateless community is also considered one of the most vulnerable communities in the world. Here are 10 visible facts to elucidate this invisible community. 

stateless in sabah
Source: Unsplash

#1: How is a person considered stateless in Malaysia? It is definitely not by choice or will. 

  • Rather, many of them inherited their statelessness from their forefathers or through unrecognised marriages in the eyes of legality [4].
  • Not just that, there are those that have entered the country illegally with no documentation, stayed on and passed on their lack of identity to their children such as the refugees and asylum seekers [5].
  • The lengthy process of earning citizenship hindered by their illiteracy and fear of being arrested by the authorities [6] further exacerbates and perpetuates their lack of identity. 

2: The root cause of statelessness hails back to our pre-Merdeka days.

  • In West Malaysia, the influx of Indian labourers of Tamil ethnicity to Malaysia under the British colonial rule displaces the majority of them. Upon the independence of Malaysia in 1957, many did not obtain citizenship due to illiteracy and lack of awareness [7]
  • In East Malaysia, the stateless are initially refugees that fled the Philippines from the civil conflict in the country in the 1970s. Their offspring are rendered stateless due to the missing documentation required to prove their legal identity[7]

#3: What does it mean to be stateless in Malaysia? To be stateless is to be invisible and denied basic rights in Malaysia, namely, education, healthcare and employment.

  • With no formal identification, a stateless person is denied access to many basic facilities such as opening a bank account, travel applications, phone plans, proper housing and even e-hailing services[8]. 

#4: Where are they living? The stateless live in conditions that are worse for wear. Many are living with poor sanitation and no proper waste management in place causing waterborne diseases and skin conditions [9].

  • The Bajau Laut community or the ”sea nomads” live in wooden shacks on stilts or houseboats sharing it with up to ten inhabitants[10]
  • Those on land live in remote areas, hidden in plain sight avoiding possible arrest by the authorities[7].

#5: Where do the stateless communities seek medical help? Being stateless means that their hospital costs are the same as any other non-citizens; that is twice or more than what is paid by an average Malaysian[9].

  • The Bajau Laut, for example, cannot afford hospital visits as their main source of income through fishing which provides them on a day-to-day basis.
  • Due to this, many rely on traditional medicines or suffer in silence.
Source: Malay Mail

#6: When it comes to tackling COVID-19 infection, there are mixed messages from the government.

  • The priority of one side of the government is to ensure no one is left behind when it comes to vaccinations[11], but another is out to arrest the community[12].
  • Another predicament is the necessity of medical practitioners to report any undocumented migrants, stateless included under the Immigration Act[13]. Many healthcare workers are in limbo when it comes to giving aid to a stateless patient. 

Source:REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/ Retrieved from Malay Mail

#7: There is a perpetuating denial of their basic rights to education as most public schools do not accept foreigners or children without proper identification[8]. Thus, stateless children depend on alternative learning centres (ALCs) such as Etania Schools, Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal to provide them with basic education.

  • In 2018, the government provided leeway for stateless children to enrol into schools with the condition that relevant documents such as a child’s birth certificate, adoption papers or court order be presented at the State Education Department or District Education office. Despite the ‘open door’, it is still impossible for many to attend school as inherited statelessness means they do not have any legal documents whatsoever[14]
  • With limited accessibility and quality of education, some stateless children become child labourers, either in plantations or in informal workplaces[15]. 

Source: Malaysiakini

#8: Their attempt to escape poverty is foiled due to the lack of basic education.  Many stateless households earn less than the national poverty index of RM 2,208[8].

  • Take, for example, Nalvin Dhillon, a stateless person who has been trying to get his MyKad for the past 10 years with no good news.
  • In 2020, the Malaysian government announced that stateless individuals will be given a one-year time frame to come forth with legal documentation in exchange for citizenship yet this did not bode well with many changemakers out there[17].
  • There are existing barriers that often hampers application procedures such as language barriers that could prevent them from performing during the language interview conducted by Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara (JPN)[18].
  • In addition to this, many stateless individuals are illiterate and the supporting documents that they might have could possibly be missing, damaged, inconsistent in its details also includes typos in their birth certificates [18].

Nalvin Dhillon Stateless Youth Malaysia
Source: Nalvin Dhillon’s personal archive

#10: The UNHCR #IBELONG campaign aims to eradicate statelessness by 2024.  Yet, Malaysia has a long way to go with the persistent xenophia tied to stateless individuals. 

  • Not just that, no action has been taken to ensure all children are in school regardless of their status as stated in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the nation signed [19].
  • At the same time, there is no news on the status of the Non-Citizen Healthcare Act. The particular Act was urged by medical practitioners to be passed in Parliament in 2019 to ensure universal healthcare is provided to all[20].  
  • There is a need for greater empathy among fellow Malaysians on the issue of statelessness. Through a public dialogue in October 2021, changemakers shared their dismay on how members of society’s general sentiment towards the stateless is tainted with fear-mongering and the lack of awareness. 

Explore our sources:

  1. UNHCR. The urgent need to end childhood statelessness. Link
  2.  H.Chiew. (2017). ‘An invisible jail’ – stateless children in Malaysia. Malaysia Kini. Link.
  3. V.Babulalal,N.Daim & A.Yunus. (2020). Giving stateless kids an identity does not mean automatic citizenship for them. New Straits Times. Link 
  4. R. M. Razali. (2017). ​Addressing Statelessness In Malaysia: New Hope and Remaining Challenges.​ Link
  5. H.Zainuddin. (2021). The Invisible Child : On Childhood Statelessness Powerpoint presentation. Presented at Upholding The Right To Education for Stateless Children public dialogue (October, 2021). 
  6. I. Venkov. (2019). ​I am a person from here – the Sabah stateless struggling without citizenship in Malaysia.​ Link
  7. T. J. Duraisingam. (2016). ​Chronology of Policies Affecting Potentially Stateless Persons and Refugees in Malaysia.​ Link
  8. Wiki Impact. (2021). Malaysia’s Invisible Poor: The Stateless Communities (whitepaper). Link 
  9. W. Hassan, W. S., & Peters, D. (2020). The Vulnerability of Bajau Laut As Stateless People In Sabah. Jurnal Kinabalu, 183. Link
  10. H. Chiew. (2019). ​Bajau Laut: Once Sea Nomads, Now Stateless.​ Malaysiakini. Link
  11. Povera, A. (2021). PM urges Malaysians, non-citizens to register for Covid-19 vaccination. New Straits Times. Link 
  12. Palansamy, Y. ( 2021). Worker, health advocates foresee bigger disaster as law enforcers start hunt for undocumented migrants in ‘total lockdown’. Malay Mail. Link
  13. Khor, S. K. ( 2021). Stethoscope: Vaccinating non-citizens and building vaccine independence in Malaysia. The Edge Markets. Link
  14. N. A. Ibrahim. (2018).​ Stateless children can enrol in school.​ New Straits Times. Link
  15. Wiki Impact. (2021). The Lasting Scars of Child Labour: Stories From The Ground. Link
  16.  C.Chau. (2021). Malaysia’s minimum wage can be raised in phases. Hrmasia. Link 
  17.  H. Sivanandam, R.Rahim and M.Carvalho & T.Tan. (2020). Stateless individuals get one year window to apply for citizenship, says the Home Minister. The Star. Link
  18. FMT Reporters. (2020). One year window for stateless individuals lauded but NGO says SOPs need review. Free Malaysia Today. Link 
  19. United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Link.
  20. MalaysiaKini. (2020). Proposing a Non-Citizen Health Act for Malaysia. Link.

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