Education, A Distant Dream For Stateless Children

As long as you are human, you’re entitled to a host of basic rights – what we commonly call ‘human rights’. They are universal rights inherent to all, regardless of gender, nationality, religion, language, culture or tribe. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the first legal document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 to be globally acknowledged and protected. It outlines 30 articles that form the basis of what we call ‘fundamental human rights’[1]. They exist to make life worth living for all humans.

Source: Malaysiakini
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 26

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory[2].

Nowhere in Article 26 does it say that personal forms of identification (passport/identification card) are needed in order to have an education. Herein lies the problem, for the stateless or undocumented communities, this basic human right is not given to them. 

Source: Asia News Daily

Whilst the Malaysia education system is rapidly changing to cater for the needs of Malaysians both in rural and urban areas, the undocumented communities are left out of the equation despite the human rights clause that specifically mentions: 

…there shall be no discrimination against any citizen on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth..[3]

How Many Stateless Children Are There In Malaysia? 

The exact population of stateless/unregistered children in Malaysia are unknown[4]. However, estimates can be made from reports that

approximately 300, 000 persons who are below 18 years old living in Malaysia, do not own any citizenship[5]. In 2012-2017 there were roughly 15,394 children born in Malaysia but were not registered as Malaysian citizens[6].

Many instances disclose that unregistered stateless children are being discriminately turned down from attending a government school. Although in 2018, the Malaysian government proceeded to allow stateless children to enrol into schools, they required relevant documents, such as the child’s birth certificate, or adoption papers or court order, and pay a small fee when registering, using the Jadual Pertama P.U.A (275) at the State Education Department or District Education office[7].

Source: UNHCR

This can be viewed as an unreasonable request as children that have been faced with generational statelessness like the Bajau Laut demographic or abandoned children do not have these documents. In many cases the child’s parents’ marriage was not recognised by the Malaysian government (or in the absence of a marriage certificate), no birth certificate was produced. 

Failure to present either one of the necessary documents will result in an ongoing battle to receive Malaysian identification / citizenship. For many, this verdict is the end of the road to gain any national identity. For stateless children, this means that education remains a distant dream. 

Great Struggles To Get An Education 

Without an education, many generations of stateless/ undocumented people are left illiterate. We spoke with Privilad, a local organisation that worked with stateless children in Sabah and they noticed that the parents struggled to read, write and converse just as much as their children did. Illiteracy among the stateless communities is evident among the young, as well as the old.

Source: Privilad

At the end of the day, these children are left to rely on local changemakers (NGOs) to teach them.  Whilst these efforts are commendable, however, they remain limited. Access to resources (books, learning materials), funding for the programs and the longevity of the programs are in question as many of these initiatives are donor-driven.

In Sabah, stateless communities build their own structures to facilitate learning, however, even these structures are regularly destroyed[8].  It is to the credit of the stateless Sabah community that they recognise the value of education for their children and desire that their children be educated. Those learning centres have been rebuilt again and again.

Source: The Star

The few that succeed in completing their education, are still not recognised by the government. This hampers their future prospect of securing any legal or recognised job. The future for stateless children is bleak when as long as they remain without identification. 

The fight for human rights is real and consequential. Children should be granted fundamental human rights because from them, future generations are birthed. If no change happens in this generation, everything else will remain as status quo for the stateless communities. Education is a good starting point for this change. 

There is an anonymous quote that reads:

What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who can’t afford an education?

To take it one step further, it could be trapped inside the mind of a child that wants to go to school, but can’t.

Thankfully there are NGOs and volunteers that have been on the ground working with the stateless community. These groups specifically strive to ensure that these children are able to access basic education by providing volunteer teachers, reading supplies, stationery etc.

Changemakers For Stateless Education:
1. Sekolah Alternatif Borneo Komrad. is an initiative organization of students and young people to build social advocacy such as education, culture and human rights. Apart from writing and mathematics, the children learn basic skills such as commerce, agriculture, sewing and cooking, among others. Based in Semporna Sabah, the school also teaches the children how to solve real-world problems they would eventually face as stateless people – exploitation at work, child marriages, sexual harassment and more.

2. Teach for Malaysia is an independent, not-for-profit organisation on a mission to give all children in Malaysia the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Founded in 2010, Teach For Malaysia is a proud member of the Global Education Network, Teach For All, a collective of education organisations in over 50 countries worldwide. This nonprofit has also worked with stateless communities in Sabah as it is their firm belief education is for everyone.

3. Privilad: is a project founded by six final year students of Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) with a vision to transform the lives of underprivileged, stateless children by providing them with basic quality education. The PriviLAD team became part-time teachers to the children at these alternative schools while completing their final year of university. They made education fun for the children incorporating lots of games and songs. They taught the children soft skills, how to read and write, but more importantly, they build strong relationships with the children giving them the confidence they need to develop as individuals.

4. Volunteer Teacher: Hartina Bulating Arssid, Before the current conditional movement control order, every weekend Hartina would teach English to about 60 students. Commiting to a 30 minute boat ride as much as she can, her classes are taught on the jetty of Pulau Mumiang.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner. (2021). What are human rights? Link. 
  2. United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Link.
  3. Refworld. (1957). Malaysia: Federal Constitution. Link.
  4. K. Kumar. (2017). Putrajaya say doesn’t track stateless children numbers. Malay Mail. Link. 
  5. Sinar Harian. (2019). Belas kasihan kepada anak tanpa negara. Sinar Harian. Link. 
  6. N. I. Abdullah. (2016). No Malaysian citizenship for more than 290,000 children born here. New Straits Times. Link.
  7. N. A. Ibrahim. (2018). Stateless children can enrol in school. New Straits Times. Link. 
  8.  J. Venkov (2019). I am a person from here – the Sabah stateless struggling without citizenship in Malaysia. The Torn Identity. Link. 

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