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In Malaysia but belonging nowhere

MANILA (UCAN): Amira’s face lit up with a smile when the word school was mentioned. “Do you want to take them? Do you know where I can send them?” she asked before adding, “no one wants them.”

Her two children, five-year-old Nasir and three-year-old Noori, were sitting with her on top of an orange plastic container by the waterfront in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state, Malaysia.

The three had just finished a lunch of rice, fish and vegetables and were heading home to a small room they rent for US$155 ($1,200) a month.

They belong to no country, but are part of a steadily growing multitude with no citizenship or place to call home, unable to claim the things that governments can provide, like health care and education.

The 30-something-year-old housewife is keen for her children to get what she never got—a formal education that could lead to a better future.

“If they were in The Philippines they would be able to go to school,” she regretted, but Nasir and Noori are among thousands of migrant children and refugees who have travelled to Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, in search of a better life, which has proven elusive.

There are no official figures, but Torben Venning, a Dane who was involved in providing basic education for thousands of immigrant children in Sabah, guesses there are tens of thousands of children who belong nowhere.

He believes generations are being condemned to a life of hardship because they lack education.

“I worked with stateless and unregistered children in Sabah from 2004 to 2015,” he said.

Children born to migrant workers from Indonesia and The Philippines lack legal documents and are ineligible to attend state schools.

Aid projects run by non-government organisations and Churches have limited impact and authorities see aid as an encouragement to stay—creating a political minefield in a restive country.

As of last year, unregistered children born in Sabah to Indonesian parents are believed to number around 70,000 with another 30,000 born to Filipino parents.

Most of the Indonesian children live in Sabah’s palm oil plantations, where their parents work. Filipino children generally live in urban areas where their parents work in construction or domestic service.

Malaysian immigration laws do not grant legal status to the children of immigrants, but with several hundred thousand migrant workers who having been in Sabah for decades, tens of thousands of children remain unregistered.

The Malaysian government has accepted non-government organisations to provide education and some plantation companies provide schools. In addition, since 2006, the Indonesian government has been providing teachers and education facilities as well.

However, children of Philippine migrants generally have more difficulties. They only have access to informal and often unlicensed education projects in town areas.

The armed incursion by a band of Suluk Filipinos and violence on the east coast of the state in the town of Lahad Datu in 2013 disrupted life for the Suluk families.

They live in constant fear of arrest. Many have lost their jobs due to discrimination making it hard for their children to attend even informal classes.

The Bajau Laut, a sea-dwelling people, also remain largely stateless without any access to school and medical care.

Their movement at sea has been restricted due to security measures after the incursion and many have been reduced to being beggars. Their children now belong to the streets.

They are by far the most vulnerable migrants in Sabah. Infant mortality from curable diseases is said to be high and some of them can only access polluted drinking water.

Detention for long periods due to the lack of documents is common and there are unconfirmed reports of deaths in detention, especially among women and children.

Amira, who originally came from Zamboanga in The Philippines, left Lahad Datu three years ago, as she says that life is better in Kota Kinabalu. “There are security checks and raids, but it is okay. There is work and we can survive,” she said.

“Our children make themselves useful selling plastic bags and carting goods for a little money,” she added. “It is a schooling of sorts.”

Nasir takes a final gulp of water from a plastic Coca-Cola bottle and tosses it into the sea along with a plastic bag of fish bones. They join the flotsam and jetsam littering the waterfront.

Further away, two young boys are taking a break from helping their parents. One, pushing a cart, growls like a car engine and the other sits inside, playing—a celebration of childhood and perhaps a rite of passage as well.

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