Stateless Children's Education in Malaysia: Analytical Essay
Quality education was listed as one of the 17 goals under the UNSDG. Education is seen as important to achieve many other SDGs as well as to escape from poverty, reduce gender inequalities, empower humans to live a better life and can contribute towards better and peaceful world1. Under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 also highlighted that education is vital for economic growth and national development as a nation will depend on the knowledge, skills, and competencies of its people for the country to survive in this current global economy, as well as maintaining the unity and nation-building within Malaysia2. However, not all children have the privilege to attend pre-school, primary or even secondary school in Malaysia. In 2018, Malaysia has reached the enrolment rate or 97.8% and 95.3% for primary and secondary school respectively3. Although Malaysia has reached more than the universal rate for primary school enrolment (95%), there are still children who are unable to enrol to primary school due to numerous reason and one of it is due to insufficient amount of document which can also be referred to stateless children. According to Article 1 of the 1954 UN Convention relating to the status of Stateless Person, a stateless person is defined as a person who is not considered as a citizen by any state under its Law4. In Malaysia’s perspective, stateless children can be categorized into a three groups which is the (1) group of refugee, asylum seekers or immigrants, (2) children born out of wedlock and abandoned children living in welfare homes and (3) children from rural area which is naturally a descendent to Indian, Filipino, Indonesia and Bajau Laut5.
Stateless children coming from the group of refugees, asylum seekers or immigrants often referred to the Rohingya’s children as Rohingya’s has the most number of refugees coming into Malaysia. According to the UNHCR figure, in August 2019, the number of registered refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia amounting to 177,690 persons and 97,750 are Rohingyas6. However, not all refugees and asylum seekers are stateless and not all of them are children. Children born in Malaysia by these refugees and asylum seekers are born stateless. For the stateless children coming from children born out of wedlock and abandoned children living in welfare homes are usually children with incomplete documents due to the abandoned and unofficial marriage, hence these are considered stateless children also. Both these groups of stateless children can be generally found in Peninsular Malaysia. As for stateless children coming from rural areas with descendent to Indian, Filipino, Indonesian and Bajau Laut, are mainly due to the lack of ability and awareness of the children’s parents to register their children after being born. There are also incidences where the lived in a remote area that is difficult to access and thus limit their movement to go to the registration office. Traditionally, the parents might also not register before, during their birth and they don’t see the importance of registering their child until it is already too late.
These children to be recognized as a citizen of Malaysia, as without the registration documents or identity card, one would not be able to access public facilities provided by the Government such as education and health. Although primary school is mandatory for every child in Malaysia, without proper documentation, one will not be allowed to enrol to public school. As some of the stateless children lived in rural and remote areas, access to school facilities is also very limited. They might have to move from family and stay at the hostel prepared for the students. This might lead to other problems as the children are not used to live in such environment and it is too young for them to stay at the hostel. The usual boarding school in Malaysia only offered for secondary school. In one of the shifts to transform the education system under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, the government will increase the investment in physical and teaching resources for Orang Asli students and other minority group students to ensure by 2025, they will have the same educational opportunities in a conducive and supporting learning environment7.
There will always be an option of private school in Malaysia, however, the enrolment fees are much higher than public school. According to a survey carried out in 2018, the annual cost for enrolling your child in a private or international school in Malaysia is USD 11,406 and ranked 21st globally8. Certainly, the fees are considered too expensive for the stateless person as they could only earn very minimal wages as they are also not allowed to work legally in Malaysia. Alternatively, these stateless children can choose to attend learning centre operated in their community and faith-based organisation with the assistance of UNCHR9. However, the tendency of stateless children to enter the labour force rather than choosing to enrol in school is quite high because they need the money to continue their survival. Financial reasons were found to be the main factors for stateless children to opt from school enrolment or later drop out of the school system with 41.2% stated that as their reason for non-enrolment while 36.2% mentioned financial reason as to why they choose to drop out of school10. Furthermore, the private international school were mostly located at the bigger city and is more suited or build for the expatriate rather than to welcome stateless person.
One of the key outcomes of Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 is to have the enrolment rate of 92% for pre-school, 98% for primary and 95% for secondary school by the year 202511. Based on the current figure earlier mentioned, we are not so far from the target. Besides, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Zero Rejection Policy for student enrolment in Malaysia in January 2019. Part of the objectives of the policy is to provide enrolment to stateless and undocumented children in Malaysia. The policy has identified four different categories of children who are not citizen but can enrol in public school, (1) children of staff working in embassies, (2) children whose parents are not citizens but who are working in government agencies, statutory bodies and others with a legal work permit, (3) children whose parents are permanent residents and (4) children who have been selected to study in Malaysia by their respective country’s governments12. Children whose parents are permanents residents will also include children adopted by Malaysian parents, children born outside the wedlock or legal marriage, and undocumented children with only one of the parents are citizens of Malaysia. With the policy, undocumented children whose both parents or one of the parents are citizen of Malaysia can enrol into public school. In May 2019, Dr. Maszlee Malik, the Education Minister stated that a total of 10,948 special needs students and 2,635 undocumented children to date, has been enabled access to public schools in Malaysia13. Although not all stateless children are given access to public education, the policy is much appreciated to address a group of undocumented children in Malaysia and is a good step forward.
There is also community learning centre operated usually in the community area where stateless persons reside. The main objectives of these learning centres are to provide basic education and survival skills for stateless children. There are few categories of learning centre which is (1) National Security Council learning centre, (2) learning centre supported by the foreign government, (3) learning centre operated by NGOs, (4) learning centre operated by faith-based organization and (5) learning centre operated by private company14. The learning centre, however, is unable to cater for a large number of stateless children at one time and runs on volunteer basis. There is also an issue with the quality of education provided in a learning centre as it is being run independently. Furthermore, some learning centre does not provide any certificate for the students to enable them to continue further in secondary school15. However, there are learning centre that is well organised and even has been recognised globally on their effort to provide education to stateless children. Etania Green School in Sabah for the stateless children has won the sustainable project category of the 2018 Trends Excellence Awards for Architecture & Design, by Home & Design Trends Magazine16. A quick view at the Etania School’s website reveals that the school is considered as well organised with a group of teachers and offers much more than just basic education for the students 17.
Overall, the Government of Malaysia through its Ministry of Education has been cooperating with UNICEF to track, monitor and record movement and the issues surrounding education for stateless children in the country. “Children Out of School: The Sabah Context” is a good example of how government and international bodies can work together to address the issue of stateless children’s education in Malaysia. The document has stated the issues, short- and long-term recommendations and even suggested the relevant bodies to implement and oversees the recommendations made18. UNCHR as the main international organisation that monitors refugees will also maintain their engagement with NGOs in Malaysia on delivery and solution programme, advocacy, communication, community-based protection, case identification and management in support of DHRRA19. NGO’s such as HUMANA and faith-based NGOs also main an important role to ease the burden of government by setting up and managed their independent learning centre for stateless children. Although these learning centres were privately funded and only provide minimal education to the children, it is hoped that by that knowledge, these stateless children will be felt inclusiveness and not left out of the world. Private organizations also can play their role by funding and supporting the learning centre activities to ensure continuous and sustainable learning centre such as Etania Green School in Sabah. On the other hand, the main issue for stateless children that need to be addressed is nationality and documentations. Without nationality and proper documentations, stateless person will continue to live in poverty, leading to poor health conditions and will remain detached from the society20. Although the government has been relaxing its policy to include a group of undocumented children to enrol in the public school under the Zero Reject Policy. With sufficient documentation and nationality, these children can have access to education, public healthcare and even security in the country. We don’t want another case of Siti Masitah Ibrahim, a stateless child that went missing but failed to activate the “Nur Alert System”21. We must remind ourselves that these children are not guilty but there are the victims and our actions towards them will determine the future of these children. If we continue to exclude them in society, knowledge, and healthcare, we will just end up with more problems to solve.