Kedah has decided that all its stateless children can attend public schools, and the little boy who recently sparked the controversy has started school. Presumably, parents or guardians of children facing the same predicament in Kedah have availed themselves of the opportunity. This is definitely a positive move. Whether other states will follow suit has yet to be seen. But it is a limited solution to a much bigger problem. Granted the requirement for a birth certificate has been waived, but the affected children remain stateless. Without any citizenship, these undocumented children will be denied many privileges as they grow up and, ultimately, they will be deprived of access to the country’s formal sector.
As adults, even if they finish school and succeed at the tertiary level, without documents proving citizenship, they cannot travel nor work in the formal sector. With unscrupulous employers, they will be exploited and will not be socially mobile. In short, the impact on the stateless child of a life without citizenship papers cannot be underestimated. In the worst case scenario, these individuals will enter the black economy of crime. With so many of them in this country, should not the authorities take the initiative to facilitate as opposed to debilitate? After all, many are undeniably of Malaysian parentage.
It follows naturally then for the adopted child that the problem is even greater when the biological parents are untraceable. Apparently, according to the law, adoption papers only give parents the right of care and when the children do not have birth certificates, regardless of what attempts are made by adoptive parents to secure citizenship, bureaucratic consideration takes precedence. Malaysia does not want the responsibility of providing for foreigners and so, expects the biological parents to register their children at birth. For the child, if the problem is never resolved, they are, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
Reportedly, there are an estimated 150,000 stateless people in Malaysia. Many live in remote areas. In this instance, inaccessibility to health facilities means home births are left unregistered. Then, of course, there are the children of illegal migrants and refugees — very sizeable groups — which produces communities of “invisibles”. Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ conventions on statelessness and is thus outside the jurisdiction of international law. It is, however, a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, albeit with reservations. This latter convention gives every child the right to a legal identity. Dropping the reservations would then make it obligatory on Malaysia to recognise children domiciled here as citizens. But are Malaysians willing to open the floodgates and bear the consequences? Malaysians are a privileged people, wherein the state provides for near universal healthcare, education and facilities. The economic burden then is obvious. But what of those among us neglected at birth, who grow up persecuted and forever deprived of an identity? Easy enough to solve the problem of the late registration of children of Malaysians but what of others whose parents have gone AWOL?