Potential Ways Forward to Address the Issue of Statelessness in Sabah

Potential Ways Forward to Address the Issue of Statelessness in Sabah

Stateless persons are distinctly excluded from the meaningful exercise of rights and protection in multiple dimensions. The statelessness issue in the State of Sabah has become an intergenerational issue depriving a range of fundamental rights of an intensive population requiring immediate intervention. Certain communities in Sabah have been rendered stateless for generations due to historical reasons, among others. We also recognise that the denial of nationality and identification documents for these stateless persons are often associated with national security policies and are made more complicated by bureaucracy and corruption.

In order to address this issue, we, from the national human rights institutions (NHRIs) of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), Indonesia (Komnas HAM) and the Philippines (CHRP), entered into a tripartite partnership through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Statelessness Issues in Sabah that was bilaterally signed between SUHAKAM and Komnas HAM, with CHRP participating as an observer on 23 April 2019. On 24 July 2020, CHRP joined the MoU as an official Party.

In line with the Action Plan on the MoU on Statelessness Issues in Sabah, we collectively organized workshops, site visits and meetings with government agencies over the past year. More recently, we held an Online Dialogue on Statelessness in Sabah on 25 November 2020 via Zoom. This online dialogue provided a platform for the relevant stakeholders to explore opportunities for potential regional collaboration and solutions to mitigate statelessness in Sabah.

Among the issues raised and discussed during the online dialogue was the lack of valid data on the number of stateless persons or those at risk of statelessness in Sabah. Although many children of Indonesian migrants born in Sabah lack documents, there is an Indonesian consulate in Kota Kinabalu which regularly issues birth certificates and passports for the children of its nationals. However, it is difficult for the Filipinos in Sabah to obtain documents as the Philippines does not have a consulate in Sabah.

This is made more complicated because the holders of IMM13 ‘refugee’ cards are unable to leave Sabah. We further recognise that the issue of statelessness in Sabah is a human rights problem which would need collective cooperation not only from the Government of Malaysia but also the neighbouring Governments of Indonesia and the Philippines. The struggles of stateless persons and the population at risk of statelessness remain a grave concern and a priority to us.

In this regard, we, from the SUHAKAM, Komnas HAM and CHRP, recommend the following:

  • That the Governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines should ensure the access of stateless persons to basic rights such as to food, livelihood and education, among others, while their documents are being processed.
  • The right of all children to have a nationality be upheld. A mechanism should be developed to address the problem of statelessness within national borders and to ensure that every child is registered at birth and is granted with nationality.
  • The National Security Council of Malaysia to indefinitely sanction detention of stateless children in Sabah and look into alternatives to detention. Children alleged of immigration offences should be provided with an appropriate alternative placement through community-based care.
  • That regional infrastructure such as the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) bring the issue forward at the regional level. We seek AICHR’s support to include the issue of statelessness back on its agenda and as an area of priority.
  • That the Governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines accede to the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, if they have yet to accede to these international treaties.
  • The key to addressing statelessness requires multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration. As NHRIs, we call upon the relevant government agencies, civil society organizations, international and regional human rights mechanisms to work together to address the issue of statelessness.

We pledge our cooperation and seek the commitment and involvement of the relevant stakeholders to mitigate statelessness in Sabah and improve the livelihood of stateless persons and population at risk of statelessness.

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM)
National Commission on Human Rights of Indonesia (Komnas HAM)
Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP)