KOTA KINABALU: There are about 50,000 stateless children in Sabah, according to non-governmental organisations such as the Asia Foundation.
An Al Jazeera report said they were the offspring of migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, or the nomadic sea tribe known as the Bajau Laut.
Many of these migrants, who, by law, are not allowed to marry or have children, work in Malaysia illegally.
They form the backbone of Sabah’s economy, working mainly in palm oil plantations, or the construction and fishing industries, said the report.
It said some of these families have lived in Malaysia for generations, but that parents did not register births for fear of facing arrest.
The children are, therefore, denied access to public schools and healthcare. Some of them attend classes run by NGOs. When they grow up, they are not able to legally find employment.
“Authorities often conduct checks and the children live in constant fear,” Flora Yohanes, a teacher at a makeshift school run by a Malaysian NGO, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera.
Indonesia and Malaysia have an informal agreement that the children will not be detained while they are in class, but they are at risk of arrest outside the school compound, according to the report.
Yohanes said if the children got wind that police were on the prowl, they stayed away from school, often hiding in the forest overnight to avoid being caught and possibly deported.
Sometimes, the children’s attempts to evade the authorities have ended in tragedy as happened last year when three teenage brothers died while hiding from police in a fish market in the town of Lahad Datu.
According to the report, to stave off hunger, some of these children sniffed glue. In Semporna, on Sabah’s east coast, children bought glue by the spoonful in plastic bags.
Al Jazeera quoted the head of the Eastern Sabah Security Command, Commander Abdul Rashid Harun, as saying they conducted daily checks to track down undocumented migrants and their children.
The Malaysia authorities, he said, had sent home more than 18,000 undocumented migrants from Sabah last year.
“The illegal migrants are involved in many crimes, and smuggling is the No 1 problem. If we can stop the smugglers, we’ll be able to stop related problems like kidnapping and armed intrusion,” Rashid said.