Last week, the world breathed a sigh of relief when a dozen Thai schoolboys and their coach were rescued from a flooded cave in a great feel-good story. Yet the future still remains uncertain for three boys and their coach, as they are stateless.
Myanmar-born Adun Sam-on, the brilliant straight-A student who translated for the rescuers in English, has no passport to take up Manchester United football club’s offer of a visit.
Without legal documents, he also cannot get a job, get married, have a bank account, own property, get a driving license or vote. This is the situation facing hundreds of thousands of stateless children in Thailand.
Malaysia also has a sizeable number of stateless children. These “invisible” children are excluded at every level, unable to get care in government hospitals and even unable to attend school, unlike in Thailand.
STPM top student from SMK Sg Kapar Indah Roisah Abdullah, 20, was the very rare exception who made it to university, thanks to a minister’s help earlier this year. Most dare not dream big. Instead, they are more likely to face abuse, exploitation, poverty, drug abuse, vagrancy and even trafficking.
Statelessness is a long-standing issue here. True numbers affected are unknown, but in 2016, then Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said 290,000 children under 18 were stateless.
One affected community are children of Indian plantation workers who lacked documentation. In 2009, they numbered 40,000; this was reduced to about 12,000 in 2017, due to the efforts of the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas and the United Nations refugee agency.
Some Orang Asli and indigenous people, such as Dayaks and Penan from Sarawak’s interior, are also unregistered – and thus stateless. Sabah has a huge and complex problem, with thousands of street children and Bajau Laut (“sea gypsies”), as well as hundreds of thousands of undocumented people.
Then there are the abandoned or “foundling” children, babies adopted by Malaysians and illegitimate children born to a foreign mother (with a Malaysian father). These children invariably suffer the cruel fate of statelessness, through no fault of their own.
But why are there so many stateless in Malaysia? It’s not as if we had a war that displaced millions.
It seems the root of the problem is, inexcusably, bureaucracy. The demands from the National Registration Department (NRD or JPN) are difficult, if not impossible, to fulfil. Technicalities can ruin lives.
“Instead of resolving the problem, they are perpetuating it,” observes lawyer Eric Paulsen, who has championed the cause for years.
“They have been extremely difficult and uncooperative to even us, lawyers and activists working on the issue. They are not sympathetic. Can you imagine how they are with someone who is not educated or from a poor background?”
The forms alone are problematic, as they can be “quite complicated”, says Paulsen, particularly for poorly-educated applicants. A mistake or an unfulfilled requirement leads to a rejection, dragging the process for several years, even decades. “There are cases of people only receiving their ICs in their 50s or 60s,” he adds.
Often, he says, the NRD rejects applications without any explanation or suggestion on what to do next, further draining resources and time. Sometimes, NRD clerks even refuse to provide the right form to applicants, giving instead a form that wrongly classifies them as foreigners, thus making the burden of proof even higher, says Paulsen, now the legal director of Fortify Rights, a non-governmental organisation.
It seems securing citizenship in Malaysia is harder than getting boys out of a flooded cave. And yet, the Federal Constitution is actually fairly liberal – it provides citizenship to every person born in Malaysia, where one parent is a citizen.
“If you are born in the country and your parents were born here you should get citizenship at the stroke of a pen,” says Paulsen. The rules should be relaxed for people who have lived for generations without documents as otherwise these cases “will never be resolved”.
Children adopted by Malaysians should also automatically be given citizenship, he believes. It seems heartless not to give a child the chance of a family life.
He adds one could only speculate as to why cases were being rejected, but notes this had become very “politicised”, with stateless people dependent on political parties to resolve their cases.
“Everything boils down to a very heartless policy of the state,” says Paulsen, adding the previous government was “not human rights friendly”.
In its election manifesto, the new government promised to look into the issue. Paulsen says they should throw out all procedures “that make life difficult”.
Citizenship, he stresses, should not be a political issue but one settled by the NRD, who should reach out to people, especially those in the interior. We need to make this “invisible” group included quickly. For too long, too many have wasted too much of their lives.