The Issue of Stateless Children

The Daily Express newspaper today covered the issue of giving birth certificates to stateless children. Here’s a bit of commentary from me:

Let me first start with an observation: We human beings are very tribal. Be it whether you are a supporter of Liverpool, of a particular race or religion, members of a clan, gang member of the local triad, inhabitants of a state or country, your views will be coloured or askewed because of who you are. As baseball great, Yogi Berra said, “Where you stand is where you sit.”

On the subject of stateless children, and on a broader arc, the issue of illegal immigration in Sabah, for the government, these tough and fractious issues are just some of those that have to be considered and rationalised, if not resolved. In addition, there is the whole matter of governance: nationally and locally, there are far-ranging implications on economy, society, culture, security, and dare I say, religion. For the government of the day, this a hot political potato that is wrapped with the attendant collary: Damn if you do, damn if don’t. Further, Malaysia has international obligations in accordance to treaties that she has signed and ratified, especially those that cover human rights, refugees, and child protection.

Malaysia is not alone of course in facing these types of intractable immigration problems. Even great nations such as the U.S., France and Germany struggled and spin their wheels on this multi-faceted dilemma.

For example, see here for the U.S.:

There are a number of international instruments that ensure a child is not denied her/his nationality, some of which Malaysia has ratified (some with reservations). These include The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“everyone has a right to nationality”), Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam (“A child shall from birth, have right to a good name, to be registered with authorities concerned, to have his nationality determined.”).

The following are however are not signed by Malaysia: The 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness which oblige countries to treat stateless persons the same as other foreigners, particularly with regard to work authorisation and the issuance of identity and immigration documents.

Our own Federal Constitution (Article 14(1)(b) Part II Section (1)(e)) guarantees the right to a nationality to a child not only through his/her parents but also if the child would otherwise be stateless (“every person born within the Federation of whose parents one at least is at the time of the birth either a citizen or permanently resident in the Federation,“ or “every person born within the Federation who is not born a citizen of any country,” if born on or after Malaysia day to Malaysian citizenship by operation of law”).

As a purely abstract and faceless argument in defending tribalism, it would be easy to urge, “Round up the illegals and throw them to the Celebes Sea or Sulu Sea. But it is a different proposition to actually look into a stateless kid’s eyes and personally condemn him/her to a life fraught with dangers, starvation and uncertainties.

Many years ago part of my job was prosecuting fisheries cases in court. There was one case where a 50-year old Filipino was caught by the Marine Police and handed to me for prosecution. So here he was (with his thin and dirty toddler child with his arms wrapped around his father’s legs) electing to plead guilty to a charge of possessing bombed fish because he can not afford a lawyer He was looking at 6 months jail because he also can not afford to pay the RM1,000 fine. So he asked me (the prosecutor!) for a loan because he said if he goes to jail, his family will not eat. I gave him the loan.

My colleague, who was also prosecuting fisheries cases in Beaufort has a similar story. He successfully prosecuted another Filipino man for fish bombing and the guy went to jail. Before he went in, he pleaded to my colleague to please check on his family. So my colleague went, and found the family (one child was still breast feeding) in abject poverty, and with nothing to eat in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp with just a tarp supported by poles as an abode. And so my colleague ended up sending food ever day for one week while waiting for the family’s relatives to come. When I asked him why, he just said simply, “They are people.”

It might warm your heart to know the guy paid his loan 1 week later.


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