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Ever Wondered Where Stateless Communities Live?

Stateless communities are living around us. They are our neighbours and if we look hard enough, we would see them. Though having lived in Malaysia for many generations, the stateless (undocumented) are not recognised and therefore do not have citizenship or identification that gives them rights as a citizen. 

Source: Borneo Today | John Jodeery

Peninsular Malaysia previously estimated that there were a total of 12,400 stateless individuals inhabiting it[1]. Although there is no estimate on numbers in East Malaysia, due to the complex history and irregular migrant flow around the state,  the current number of stateless people in the region is estimated to be about 800,000[2].

What are their living conditions? 

The formal whereabouts of many stateless remain unknown or untraceable because of the lack of registration and paperwork stating where they live and where they work. The lack of registration may be intentional for the fear of being tracked down by authorities. 

However, articles and research papers have shown that a large majority of stateless individuals are living on the brink of poverty or barely surviving. This is a result of inaccessibility to education and barriers of entry to meaningful employment

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) explores poverty through three dimensions; Education, Healthcare and Living Standards. To understand the housing conditions of the stateless communities, we will look into the various indicators (as a base) to understand the level of deprivation in living standards as seen in the image below[3]. Further to that, we will explore some stories of stateless communities in Malaysia. 

Where do they actually live? 

An article by Channel News Asia identified that those living on Pulau Berhala, Sandakan, Sabah, were faced with horrible living standards. The stateless village was a collection of dilapidated houses just on top of rancid shallow waters that consisted of garbage, animal carcasses and human waste, due to the absence of a waste management system. 

Source: Channel News Asia

Hundreds of stateless households on the island would walk through the sewage barefooted, some would sort through it in order to collect plastic bottles, wooden planks or metal sheets that would later be sold off[4]

It is not uncommon for more than two members of the family to be sharing a room, however when it comes to sanitation and hygiene facilities, many households do not have garbage collection services and they are forced to discard rubbish anywhere.

Source: New Straits Times

A resident of Pulau Berhala by the name of Ms. Syamsiah lives in a small space on the sand with a small zinc roof to cover. Her stove is an open fire fed with wooden blocks and sticks and smoke rising from the fire is circulated around her living space. Ventilation is poor and the open fire is both a health and safety hazard as Ms. Syamsiah has two young children. 

Source: Channel News Asia

If I don’t cook this food, they’ll starve. But when I cook, it’s also not a healthy situation with the smoke all over the place. – Ms. Syamsiah, stateless person

Another type of stateless community living in Sabah is the Bajau Laut, otherwise known as the “Sea Nomads of Sabah”. They are comfortable at sea living in wooden shacks on stilts or houseboats. It is not uncommon for Bajau Laut families to share one houseboat with up to ten inhabitants[5].

Source: Archdaily

The houseboat is self-sufficient with gasoline, clean water, gas, and even a baby’s cradle made of cloth tied to the low roof of the houseboat. However, it does not have electricity. There are no televisions, mobile phones, or clocks, which a modern household may consider as necessities. Clean running water is questionable as they are far from land. Further to that, functioning waste management systems are likely not installed on the houseboats. 

Source: Archdaily

For stateless communities that are more land based, they tend to stay inside more. As they are not eligible for a driving licence or purchasing a vehicle of their own, many are reliant on their peers, to drive them to their destination. The stateless are not active users of travel apps like Grab or Uber as they have no IC to register. 

I try to not go out of my house as much, because I am scared the police will catch me and throw me into prison. – Nalvin Dhillon, stateless person

Source: Allegra Lab

The stateless communities may not be recognised by the government or in the country, but they are human too. If you know of stateless communities living in your area, take time to drive through and see for yourself the living conditions they are subjected to. Find a local organisation or charity that you can partner with or support – a good place to start is our changemakers map. Everyone deserves a roof over their head, a safe refuge to return to and space they can call their own.

Explore Our Sources: 

  1. UNHCR. (2018). Ending Statelessness in Malaysia. Link.
  2. I. Venkov. (2019). I am a person from here – the Sabah stateless struggling without citizenship in Malaysia. Link.
  3. Santos, Emma Maria and Alkire, Sabina. (2011). Training Material For Producing National Human Development Reports. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI). Link
  4. A. Yusof. (2019). Living in a sea of trash: Sabah’s stateless children face bleak future. Channel News Asia. Link.
  5. H. Chiew. (2019). Bajau Laut: Once Sea Nomads, Now Stateless. Malaysiakini. Link.  

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