UN expert urges Malaysia to do more on stateless children, underage marriage

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio

KUALA LUMPUR: A United Nations expert on the rights of children has highlighted the plight of stateless children in Sabah as well as the issue of child marriage, as part of a report to be presented in Geneva next year following a fact-finding visit to Malaysia.

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, concluding her eight-day tour of the country, said there was a need for the authorities to address issues faced by stateless children, saying failure to do so would create more problems in future including child marriage and other forms of exploitation.

She said authorities should also stop “poisonous rhetoric” attacking immigrants as a security threat, adding that the issue of undocumented children was “particularly striking” in Sabah.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 161,140 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, 42,620 of whom are below the age 18 and 989 being children separated from their families.

De Boer-Buquicchio also spoke about her observation of Malaysian immigration detention centres.

She questioned the practice of female detainees in some of these centres being held together with their children.

“I find it quite disturbing that children are detained in these situations.

“Civil society could have offered alternative solutions for the children pending deportation,” she said.

On the issue of child marriage, de Boer-Buquicchio said Malaysian laws should be in line with international requirements, with the minimum marital age set at 18.

“The marriages of these children result in domestic violence and sometimes their motives are totally inadequate,” she said, but admitted implementing the legal age of marriage at 18 would not be easy due to the country’s dual legal system.

“There is need for legal reforms to address the loopholes,” she said.

De Boer-Buquicchio said a root problem is the patriarchal structures and attitudes in Malaysia, where “girls and women are passed off as commodity, irrespective of their feelings and their wishes”.

“There needs to be a change of mindset among all Malaysians to continue to eradicate the many human rights violations, based on the principle of non-discrimination,” she said.

She said any failure to strengthen laws to protect children could lead to more serious forms of exploitation such as child sex tourism.