KOTA KINABALU: An academic today advised the government to issue birth certificates to all children regardless of citizenship status as one way to address the problem of stateless people in Sabah.
Universiti Malaysia Sabah senior lecturer Wan Shawaluddin Wan Hassan said not only would birth certificates protect individuals from the risk of human trafficking, they are also an important tool for reuniting families.
“Needless to say, it will also help prevent and reduce the risk of people becoming stateless,” he said at the Workshop on Statelessness in Sabah here organised by Suhakam.
He said issuing birth certificates does not amount to granting citizenship, but would help the government monitor the number of births in the state, track the movements of people, and eventually draft policies to address issues related to statelessness.
At the moment, he said, government agencies and departments cannot even agree on the actual number of stateless people in Sabah, which hampers efforts to tackle the problem.
Stateless people in Sabah include the Bajau Laut or sea gypsies, street children, and even indigenous peoples in the interior and remote islands whose parents did not register their births.
Locals include the Murut and Lundayeh people in the interior, and the Bonggi Dusun people on the island of Banggi.
“However, the most prominent stateless people are the Bajau Laut people,” Wan Shawaluddin said.
“In Indonesia, they were provided land as an incentive to get them shifted from the sea. This also happened in Semporna in Sabah’s east coast. Unfortunately, many of them are still on the sea and, as a result, it is difficult for the government to include them in development projects.”
As long as the Bajau Laut live on the sea, he said, they will be marginalised.
“This has been their lot ever since the time of the Sulu sultanate where they were considered as the lowest ranked in society,” he said.
He said several government projects had failed to consider the position of these people, including the Tun Sakaran Marine Park that included islands long viewed as theirs under native customary rights.
Because the Bajau Laut are not considered citizens, he said, its people had been driven out of their customary areas and could now be found scattered all over the state.
They are also vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and face difficulties even in accessing education and affordable healthcare.
“The Bajau Laut, being non-citizens of this country, have also been targeted within this security region as potential facilitators of foreign incursions, given their knowledge of the Sulu Sea and the movements of security forces.
“That is why Esscom carried out a census of the Bajau Laut. I was previously told that early estimates put the number at around 5,000. But in 2016, according to Esscom, their number was actually more than 20,000.”
He said giving these people some sort of identification document such as a birth certificate for both humanitarian and security reasons would help resolve this crisis.