Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Hartini Zainudin has witnessed many traumatic incidents in her work as a child rights activist, but as she talks about the plight of Malaysia’s stateless children, she struggles to hold back tears.
Hartini’s own daughter lacks a nationality. She rescued Zara from traffickers when she was less than three months old. Following a lengthy adoption process, Hartini is now Zara’s legal parent, but attempts to secure citizenship for the six-year-old have been rejected. With no official status, Zara can’t travel, attend government schools or use the public health system. Without documentation, she is also at risk of detention.
“It is every human being’s inherent right to be loved, to dream, to live – not just survive,” Hartini said. “Who are you, Mr Policymaker, to say this child has no right to dream? Laws are man-made. Policies are man-made.”
There are an estimated 150,000 stateless children in Malaysia. Many are from remote communities in the peninsula’s jungle interior or across the sea in Borneo. Others are the children of refugees or migrants, and still more are ethnic Indians whose battle to prove they are Malaysians can be traced back to Malaya’s independence from Britain in the late 1950s.
The authorities “insist on documentary proof that is impossible for them to provide”, said Eric Paulsen, an adviser to Lawyers for Liberty. “They are often poor and illiterate. There’s only so much time and effort they can spend on this, so they give up and the statelessness carries on to the next generation.”
Paulsen is working with dozens of families who were born in Malaysia but lack citizenship. In September 2013, with the support of Lawyers for Liberty, 70-year-old Letchumy Suppiah was finally recognised as a citizen. Her two daughters, in their mid-40s and mid-30s, also received documents identifying them as Malaysians.
The United Nations Children’s Fund said the problem is “quite striking” given Malaysia’s size – a population of just 29 million – and relative wealth. At least 10 million people around the world are believed to be stateless, meaning that no country considers them a citizen.
It is possible, with the technology available and what other countries have done, to reach the unreached and make universal the registration of the child when they are born.
“Stateless children, through no fault of their own, inherit circumstances that limit their potential,” according to UNICEF’s website. “They are born, live and, unless they can resolve their situation, die as almost invisible people.”
Experts say statelessness leaves children vulnerable to discrimination, abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN conventions relating to statelessness, but it has adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child – albeit with some reservations – which gives all children the right to a legal identity.
The United Nations says effective laws on nationality and universal birth registration are the first steps towards resolving the problem. While Malaysia’s constitution does provide significant safeguards against statelessness, there are also gaps – notably in the case of foundlings who do not acquire nationality automatically – and decisions on citizenship ultimately rest with just one official, the home minister.
UNICEF has been working closely with the government to ensure the births of all children are registered, particularly those in rural communities.
“We want to show Malaysia that it is possible, with the technology available, and what other countries have done, to reach the unreached and make universal the registration of the child when they are born,” Victor Karunan, the deputy representative for UNICEF, told Al Jazeera during a recent interview at his office.
Three years ago, a registration drive targeting ethnic Indians helped secure documentation for some of the stateless. “It was a good initiative,” Karunan said. “That kind of thing needs to be sustained and should be expanded to other communities facing similar difficulties.”
A ‘frustrating’ process
Kim Thiruchelvam runs her own public relations consultancy and is married to a lawyer. She’d always told herself that if she and her husband didn’t have any kids of their own by the time she turned 40, they would adopt.
In March 2011, they took the plunge. “I believe the child chooses you,” she told Al Jazeera over tea in the upscale Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bangsar. “It all happened so fast.”
Born on the cement floor of a factory where her Burmese mother worked – after just 27 weeks of pregnancy – Alaani was handed over to Malaysia’s welfare department after her biological mother disappeared. The tiny baby, whose birth weight was just over one kilogramme, spent much of her first few months in and out of hospital, battling pneumonia.
Kim sent supplies, including nappies, to the hospital where Alaani was warded, and drove three hours across the country on weekends to visit her adopted daughter. By June, she was able to bring Alaani home. But the couple’s struggle with bureaucracy was only just beginning.
I'm a law-abiding citizen who followed the rules. Why are you penalising me?
With the adoption legalised through the courts, it then took four trips to the National Registration Department to get Alaani’s birth certificate, which was coloured red for a non-Malaysian. Two applications for citizenship have since been rejected, with no reason given.
“We tell ourselves she’s four this year, so we’ll keep trying, but it’s so frustrating,” Kim said. “It’s frustrating because [the process] is not clear, and it’s scary because while we have the means, there are so many people out there who don’t. You wonder, where’s the compassion?”
Kim and Hartini are among a group of Malaysian parents including a rubber tapper, a taxi driver, and a pastor who are lobbying the government to establish clearer procedures on adoption and citizenship. The parents have legally adopted some 20 children between them.
“If a person doesn’t have documents in Malaysia they cannot do anything,” said Paulsen of Lawyers for Liberty. “The fact that [the authorities] are not doing anything is mind-boggling. Once he or she has been adopted, the next logical step is citizenship. We have the proper infrastructure and there’s a centralised data system. There’s really no reason why there should be a single stateless person in Malaysia. It’s just a bureaucratic black hole.”
No automatic citizenship rights
Both Kim and Hartini have written letters to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak about their plight. Kim published hers online after she failed to get a response. The prime minister did not respond to Al Jazeera’s enquiry about the letter.
In a statement, the Ministry of Home Affairs reiterated the complex web of laws governing birth registration, adoption of children and citizenship. “Adoption only provides legal care rights of a child and does not carry along with it automatic citizenship rights,” the statement said.
“Ideally, it is the responsibility of the birth mother and father to obtain citizenship by dealing with their country’s representative to avoid their child from being stateless in Malaysia. This is also to ensure Malaysia is not given the undue responsibility and burden of citizenship issues of foreign nationals who intentionally refuse to deal with their child’s identification documents from their country of origin.”
The adoptive parents plan to step up their lobbying and will appeal against the rejections, even though they have not been told why their applications were refused in the first place. They won’t rest until their children secure the citizenship that so many people take for granted.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen who followed the rules,” Hartini declared. “Why are you penalising me?”