Thousands of stateless children left in limbo in Sabah

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 10:53 GMT

A stateless child holds on to his mother as he plays with his friends in a slum village in Kinarut, in Malaysia's Sabah state on the Borneo island in this photo from 2006. REUTERS

Image Caption and Rights Information
Felicity wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, but there's a catch - officially she doesn't exist

This story is part of an AlertNet special multimedia report on statelessness

By Thin Lei Win

LAHAD DATU, Malaysia (AlertNet) - “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up,” Felicity Stefanus, an outspoken 13-year-old whose parents came from Indonesia’s West Timor, volunteered in English.

Like other children her age, her bedroom wall in Sabah, eastern Malaysia, is filled with posters of Korean pop stars and Justin Beiber, and she likes to make peace signs whenever a camera lens turns towards her.

“I want to go back to Indonesia and continue my studies,” she added. “I’ve never been to Indonesia.”

There is only one problem. Officially, Felicity Stefanus does not exist.

Aid workers and non-governmental organisations estimate there are about 50,000 stateless Indonesian children like Felicity in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. And there is a lesser known population of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of stateless Filipino children living there.

Like Felicity, these children were born in Sabah but do not have birth certificates or any documentation to prove their nationality. Living in legal limbo, they are unable to access government services including health and education or return legally to their parents’ countries.

Those who face days without access to school tend to grow up as child labourers in plantations or roam the streets where they are exposed to glue sniffing, drugs, petty crime or child abuse. If they fall ill, they can seek help only at expensive private clinics, not at government hospitals. 

The only way stateless children get education is through schools, mostly based in plantations, run by non-governmental organisations such as Lahad Datu-based Humana Child Aid Society.

In that sense Felicity, a Grade 6 student on her way to finishing primary school at one of 117 Humana Schools, is considered extremely lucky, even if she is not sure where and how her secondary education will take place if she is to become a lawyer.

Torben Venning, executive director of Humana, said educating stateless children will eventually benefit Malaysia. If they do well at school, they are more likely to go back to Indonesian or the Philippines for a secondary school education, he said.

“If they do not have any education, then they will be more likely to end up in the same place and possibly become part of the social problem,” he said.

“In this way we try to see our project as a positive solution to the social problem and helping the workers and plantations and most importantly helping the children for their future.”


In Sabah most stateless children of Indonesian parentage were born and raised there by parents who have arrived in a steady stream since the 1970s to fulfil demand for cheap labour in the palm oil sector.

Malaysia is the world’s second-largest palm oil producer and Sabah, with 1.4 million hectares of oil palm plantations, accounts for almost a third of national production. 

Then there are children of the Filipinos who fled armed conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines in the 1960s, or of recently arrived Filipinos working at construction sites and homes.

These children of Filipino parentage are even more vulnerable than the Indonesian children because the Filipino government, unlike Indonesia, has no consulate in Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, despite demand from civil society groups, said Anne Lasimbang, executive director of PACOS, a local community-based organisation.

This has left stateless Filipino children in a catch-22 situation: Even if they can afford the two-and-a-half-hour flight to the Filipino embassy in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, they need identity documents to travel there. But these official documents allowing freedom to travel can only be received in Kuala Lumpur.

Mark*, an 11-year-old Filipino student at a Humana school, said his family always worries about him or his mother being arrested and deported because they, unlike his father, have no official documents.

“If we go into town we always look around. If we see police, sometimes we would run away and if we hear they will be looking to arrest illegal immigrants, we will run away to the plantations and hide,” he told AlertNet. “It's scary.”

Under Malaysia’s immigration laws, foreign workers are not allowed to marry so those who do are married according to customary or religious practices, not legally. This makes it difficult to get birth certificates or register children at embassies.

Even if the parents are legally married, the cost of registering a child can be prohibitive. Many are also unaware of the application procedure or cannot afford travel costs to reach the embassies.

Most of these families earn 500 to 800 Ringgit ($167 - $267) a month, depending on the work, PACOS’ Lasimbang said.

“But they still have to pay many things like accommodation, food, maybe passport and levee fees and other loans they took when they travelled to Sabah,” she said.


Sabah, one of two states forming the Malaysian portion of Borneo, is blessed with resources and astounding natural beauty, yet it is also one of the poorest states.

While there are disagreements over the official poverty level of 16 percent, local media  in November quoted Emmanuel Jimenez, the World Bank’s East Asia human development sector director, as saying Sabah was home to 40 percent of Malaysia’s poverty-stricken despite only 10 percent of the country’s population living there.

Local Sabahans say the poverty is fuelled by foreigners, who they say form up to 40 percent of the population. This has led to tension over resources and public services and accusations that the central government is marginalising Sabahans in favour of foreigners.

The government has carried out a few high-profile crackdowns – with media reporting mass deportations and arrests of illegal immigrants, with stateless children left alone or detained and deported with parents – but it has since changed tack.

But there are some positive developments. Malaysia’s Ministry of Education supports and has issued licenses for all Humana schools, which teach Malaysian language, English, mathematics and science up to Grade 6 for a fee of 40 Ringgit ($13) a month, Venning said.

And the Indonesian government, through its consulate in Kota Kinabalu, has also started registering stateless Indonesian children, aid groups told AlertNet. The Indonesian embassy and consulate were not immediately available for comment.

Liew Vui Keong, deputy minister in the prime minister’s department and a member of parliament for Sendakan constituency in Sabah, told AlertNet both host countries and countries of origin would have to work together to give some form of recognition to the stateless children and their parents.

“We cannot deny the fact that they’re already here,” he said. “We cannot just kick them out because where do they go? We cannot simply deny them of their rights to stay in a place where they were born.”

* Name has been changed to protect identity

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)


STATELESS: The world’s most invisible people? 


VIDEO: Who is stateless? – Emma Batha and Alex Whiting, AlertNet

VIDEO: What is statelessness? – Aubrey Wade/Open Society Foundations

VIDEO: Stateless Nubians - Katy Migiro, AlertNet

VIDEO: Stateless Rohingyas - AlertNet

VIDEO: Stateless children in Sabah –Thin Lei Win, AlertNet

VIDEO: Stateless Dominicans – Jon Anderson, Open Society Foundations

GRAPHIC: Stateless people worldwide - Reuters 


Invisible millions pay price of statelessness - Emma Batha, AlertNet       

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Colonialism renders Nubians stateless in Kenya - Katy Migiro, AlertNet

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Citizenship worries compromise Ivory Coast stability - George Fominyen, AlertNet

Sabah’s stateless children seek official status - Thin Lei Win, AlertNet

Roma must get citizenship, says Europe rights chief  -  Megan Rowling, AlertNet     

EXPERT VIEWS – Did statelessness fuel the conflict in Congo? - George Fominyen, AlertNet

Brazil bill gives hope to Latin America’s stateless – Anastasia Moloney, AlertNet 


FACTBOX: Stateless groups around the world - Emma Batha, AlertNet    

FACTBOX: How countries have tackled statelessness - Astrid Zweynert, AlertNet

LINKS: The world's most invisible people? - AlertNet 


HAVE YOUR SAY: What does it mean to be stateless? - Tim Large, AlertNet

How DNA is helping young Thais get citizenship – Plan International  

‘Drowning nations’ threaten new 21st Century statelessness –  Maxine Burkett, ICAP

No rights for stateless Rohingya fleeing Burma - Refugees International     


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