For the most part, the stateless population in Malaysia remains shrouded in mystery. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least 12,400 stateless people in West Malaysia1. However, numbers in East Malaysia are “unclear”.
In 2016, then Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi revealed there were an estimated 290,437 children born in Malaysia but not given citzenship2. There are many factors for statelessness, including failure to register births, abandonment, children of migrants or undocumented persons, or when parents do not have a marriage certificate.
“I am a Malaysian. But they consider me a non-Malaysian.”
In an interview with Malaysia Now, Thinesh shared the ordeal of turning 21 in Malaysia without citizenship. Born in Malaysia, she was raised by her father when her mother left after she was born. When she was eight years old, he passed away and his friend’s family took her in. However, when she turned 12 years old and attempted to apply for an NRIC (identification card), her status as a stateless person was discovered.
“My birth certificate has no details about my biological mother. The Malaysian government gives priority to mothers. If the mother is not Malaysian, the child is not Malaysian. My problem is, I have no details of my mother at all… I have a birth certificate number, and the number is still valid. I don’t know why the government refuses to give me citizenship… I am a Malaysian. But they consider me a non-Malaysian4.”Thinesh, 21
Thinesh first applied for citizenship in 2014. As a stateless person, she does not have access to public services such as education and healthcare. She cannot open a bank account, buy a SIM card and no scholarships are available to her. Today, Thinesh works at the office of an NGO in Selangor and is still waiting on the status of her application.
Many stateless people in Malaysia were born here, and have spent their entire lives in this country.
Six categories of statelessness have been documented so far in Malaysia3:
- People who have been in Malaysia pre-independence, and their descendants
- People who lack documentation
- Children who have been abandoned or adopted
- Children of unconventional families, born out of wedlock or where the ‘cultural marriage’ was not legally registered
- Indigenous people
- Children of refugees and migrants
From the list, we can see that it’s not as simple as people smuggling their way into Malaysia. Many cases of statelessness, just like Thinesh’s, may often be people who have been born and lived in Malaysia all their lives.
How can we pray for stateless children and persons in Malaysia?
Statelessness in Malaysia is not new. It’s been happening for decades, and generations of children born in Malaysia are growing up without citizenship through no fault of their own. The situation is complex and requires both political will and community support in order to address the issue effectively. We can pray for:
> Political will to implement effective, just and transparent policies that accord dignity to every stateless person
> Change to happen from the ground up, that civic society will close the gap in the meantime to provide healthcare, education and opportunities to stateless people
> God to move in the hearts of the stateless, reminding them of their value and that they are loved
> Malaysians to continue being a kind and caring society to all vulnerable groups
If you’ve prayed and feel led do more for the stateless community in Malaysia, check out our map and directory to see where you can serve or volunteer!
- Ending Statelessness in East Malaysia, UNHCR.
- 290,437 stateless children in Malaysia, 2016, Malaysiakini.
- Lee D, Three ways to end statelessness in Malaysia, 2021, New Straits Times.
- Stateless and turning 21 in Malaysia, 2021, Malaysia Now.
- Cover Image: Stateless children in Sabah by Nowhere People