Stateless and forgotten: The harsh reality of being a citizen of nowhere

Statelessness is not a crime


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Imagine not having a country to call home.

Imagine being a citizen of nowhere. Imagine being deprived of basic human rights just because we are “undocumented”.

Imagine being forced to leave our ancestral homes and being labelled as “illegals”. Imagine waking up one morning to find our cherished national identity has vanished into ether. We’ve become stateless.

Such is the plight of millions of people around the world.

People become stateless for various reasons. Some of these people are ethnic minority groups displaced by violent conflicts. They have been driven out of their homes by a systemic pogrom that seeks not only to strip them of their nationality but also to wipe them out of existence.

An example close to home is the harrowing experience of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Not only were they not recognised by the Myanmar government as citizens, they were also forced to flee the country as the military burnt down their villages and killed indiscriminately those who stood their ground.

Another class of stateless people are the ethnic minority communities who practise nomadic lifestyles. These communities are not bound by the legal conventions of nation-state borders. Their cultural practices long predate modern-day national boundaries and their roving way of life is at odds with sedentary communities commonly found in today’s world.

Examples are the hill tribes that straddle Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and the Bajau Laut community in Sabah.

Stateless people are among the most vulnerable groups in our society. Without official documents proving their nationality, they are vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination and abuse.

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They are often at the mercy of the authorities, who eye them suspiciously as foreign agents because of their transnational way of life.

Not having proper documents also means they are unable to access basic rights that citizens take for granted, such as education and healthcare.

Hence, social problems are pervasive among young stateless people as they are denied the opportunity and dignity to lead a normal life like the rest of us do.

That is why what happened recently in Semporna, Sabah, is a shameful tragedy. The authorities demolished and burned down Bajau Laut villages on seven islands and evicted their residents, who presumably had nowhere to go.

The impunity of the authorities in erasing these communities out of existence is astounding.

It makes you wonder whether certain vested interests want to build luxury resorts on the seized land.

The Bajau Laut have long been neglected and victimised by the powers that be. Many in Sabah regard them as ‘non-Malaysians’ and a social blight.

At worst, they are perceived as a threat to national security due to their transnational movement across Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesian maritime borders.

At best, they are an object of curiosity, to be gawked at by throngs of tourists attracted by the Bajau Laut’s exotic reputation as “sea gypsies”.

So at one end, they appear to be criminalised and, at the other, they are exploited. All because they are stateless and lack the legal means to defend their community – unlike other ethnic communities with citizenship status.

Fortunately, some concerned activists in Sabah care deeply about the plight of stateless people in the state. Chief among them are activists from Borneo Komrad and its main programme, sekolah alternatif (alternative schools).

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Borneo Komrad activists have worked tirelessly since the founding of the group in 2017. Their aim? To empower the stateless Bajau Laut through education and a self-supporting economy.

The alternative schools initiative is one such effort, as stateless children are not allowed to enrol in public schools. This denial is a gross violation of the universal human right to education.

Education and economic self-sufficiency give the stateless Bajau Laut people what society denies them: dignity and self-worth. These are vital ingredients to stem the social ills wreaking havoc on the community.

To make things worse, the police in Semporna called in Mukmin Nantang, the irrepressible founder of Borneo Komrad, for questioning.

Since the village was razed and its residents displaced, the activist has rallied support for the Bajau Laut community by visiting affected villages and publicising their grievances to the rest of the world.

For this, Mukmin was investigated under the archaic Sedition Act, a colonial relic designed to repress political dissent. It is one of many draconian laws that many in the current government had promised to abolish when they were the opposition. Its continued existence makes a sheer mockery of the Reformasi agenda.

Many of us, as natural-born citizens, take our rights for granted, as they have always been part of us. After all, there is no imminent threat to deny us these rights.

But less fortunate ones have to live in an existential limbo of not belonging anywhere. They are the refugees, the nomadic ethnic minorities, the children of Malaysian mothers married to foreigners.

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It is high time we redefine what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship should include a deep encompassing sense of humanity and empathy – not just for our fellow citizens but also for other human beings.

It is so ironic that we can (rightly) empathise with the Palestinians being gruesomely displaced and exterminated by a genocidal regime in Israel. But then many of us turn a blind eye to what is happening with the stateless Bajau Laut people in our own backyard. Such hypocrisy should not be tolerated.

Martin Luther King Jr once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Empathy for others is sorely needed in our increasingly polarised society. I’m reminded of a slogan popular with the pro-refugee demonstrations in Germany: Kein mensch ist illegal (no one is illegal).

We should stop looking at stateless people as “illegals” but as fellow human beings.

Now, that would be a solid first step towards solving the crisis of statelessness.

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
30 June 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Azmil Tayeb
Dr Azmil Tayeb, the honorary secretary of Aliran, is a political science lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He is the winner of the 2019 Colleagues' Choice book prize (social science category) awarded by the International Convention of Asia Scholars for his book Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia: Shaping Minds, Saving Souls
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