Stateless people: Do we have to make it this difficult?

Shouldn’t we be more proactive in rescuing stateless children and grandchildren and offering them a path to develop their potential?

Stateless children in Malaysia - Photograph: EPA/Al Jazeera

Ms K, 43, is a mother of four and proud grandmother of two, but a huge dark cloud hangs over her family – all of them are stateless.

The problem began a generation earlier. K’s mother, L, never got her own identity card as her stepfather used L’s and her younger brother V’s birth certificates as collateral for a loan. He could not repay the loan and so did not apply for their identity cards when the children turned 12.

When V started work, he looked for the money lender and took back the birth certificates after settling the debt. With the birth certificate, V was able to get a blue identity card.

But L didn’t follow up with the process that V initiated for her – for she was mired in poverty and apathetic. She and her husband did not register the birth of two out of her three children – K and her elder brother S.

The third child, K’s sister, was adopted at birth by the Chinese boss of L’s husband. The adoptee family registered her birth (giving the correct details for the parents) and this child eventually received a blue identity card.

K’s stateless family

Key:
Red = Not a citizen of Malaysia
CS = Committed suicide
D = Passed on (many died young)

K married a Malaysian citizen, but they could not register the marriage as she had no documents.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Home Affairs has deemed that children from such a marriage cannot be conferred citizenship on the basis of their father’s citizenship as stipulated in Article 14(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution, read together with Part II(1)(a) of the Second Schedule of the Constitution.

The ministry cites Section 17 of Part III of the Constitution that reads “references to a person’s father are in relation to a person who is illegitimate to be construed as references to his mother” as the basis of this position.

The ministry’s interpretation of Section 17 is that a) such children are “illegitimate” as their parents’ marriage is not registered and b) their citizenship status has to be determined solely based on their mother’s status. As a result, all four of K’s children have “Citizenship not yet determined” in the relevant sections of their birth certificates.

Being stateless brings with it many problems. Schooling is difficult. K and her uncle, V, are illiterate. K’s children went to primary school but dropped out in early secondary school. It is difficult to enrol in any college for vocational or tertiary education.

Stateless people cannot get jobs in the formal sector. Bosses are unwilling to employ anyone without an identity card. “How do I register you for EPF [Employees Provident Fund] and Socso?” they ask.

So stateless individuals have to work in insecure jobs in the non-formal sector, with stiff competition from undocumented workers who accept jobs that pay less than the minimum wage.

Access to healthcare too is problematic. K’s daughter was billed RM3,000 for the Caesarian section done in a government hospital for her first child.

This situation breeds despair. K’s elder brother S hanged himself at 42. Two of her teenaged sons hanged themselves as well. This is what this sort of predicament leads to!

But K is a plucky woman. She came to see me six years ago to ask if I could help.

I helped her apply for late registration of her birth. We got V, her maternal uncle who is in Johor, to be the main sponsor of this application (her parents had both passed on by then) and submitted all the required documents in July 2015.

Silence.

We wrote in to the Johore Registration Office several times with no response.

Finally, in May 2018, K was informed in a brief letter that her application to register her birth was rejected. No reason was given. Neither was there any advice on how to proceed or what further information was required.

We decided to resubmit the application with stronger evidence. We did a DNA study of K and V to prove that the latter was really her uncle. Then we looked for more family members to prepare statutory declarations regarding her family and her birth. That has taken almost two years to organise.

Finally, we went to the Registration Department in Putrajaya yesterday to submit the application. Fingers crossed!

But does the process have to be so difficult? The Ministry of Home Affairs must review the process and decide what level of proof it needs in cases like this. Is it proof that is “beyond all possible doubt” that is required? Or a level of proof that satisfies a balance of probabilities?

The ministry has to ask itself how it actually benefits the nation to make things so difficult for this unfortunate set of people – for there are quite a number of families like K’s.

However difficult we make it for them, they are not going to emigrate from Malaysia. Where can they go? And how will they go without a passport? But we can drive them to suicide, as this family’s history amply testifies.         

Agreed, many of these cases are due to parental irresponsibility and neglect. We cannot blame the ministry for that.

But if the effects of an instance of parental irresponsibility are allowed to blight the lives of subsequent generations, then the ministry has to assess whether it has played a part in prolonging the suffering. In K’s case, it is now the fourth generation that is being affected.

We need to be more compassionate as a society. Marginalisation and abject poverty can lead to ignorance, apathy and neglect. Shouldn’t we be more proactive in rescuing the children and grandchildren of such demoralised parents and offering them a path to develop their potential and become useful members of society?

The ministry should know that according to Section 1(e) of Part II of the Second Schedule of the Federal Constitution – every person born within the Federation after Malaysia Day who is not born a citizen of any other country is a citizen by operation of law.

All of K’s children should have been given citizenship based on this provision as they were born in Malaysia after 1963 and have no recourse to citizenship in any other country.

An enlightened, proactive ministry would have called the entire family when K applied in 2015 and counselled them how they should proceed in getting citizenship for the children and grandchildren, instead of splitting hairs and looking for reasons to disqualifying her application.

I usually do not fight with Registration Department staff at the counters, for they are only following detailed standard procedures that higher-ups have determined.

It will require a cabinet-level decision to make the relevant procedures more humane. We can only hope that enlightened changes will be made before many more lives are blighted.

K was hopeful when we left the Registration Department yesterday. As we were walking to the car, she showed me the earrings she was wearing. “My son bought this for me,” she said, smiling. “He has been working contract for a few months and he saved to buy this.”

She was lucky to have such a caring son, I replied.

“I think this time I will get my birth cert,” she said.

Let’s hope she is right and that the long ordeal is about to end for this family.   

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