Video Duration 26 minutes 00 seconds
From: 101 East

Sabah’s Invisible Children

101 East enters the world of Sabah’s stateless children, who spend their lives on the run from authorities.

When security forces roll into town, people run in all directions, desperate to escape. In their haste, they knock over trays of fish for sale at the local market.

It is another raid by authorities seeking to flush out hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Hiding in the shadows are tiny figures, the children of migrants who are growing up stateless. Born in Malaysia but citizens of no country, they cannot access public schools or healthcare.

They are at constant risk of being detained and deported. With their families struggling to earn enough to feed them, some resort to sniffing glue to stave off hunger. 

101 East enters the world of Sabah’s invisible children.

This film won a 2015 Human Rights Press Award.

Sabah’s stateless children grow up without education, healthcare and in constant fear of authorities. Join the @AJ101East conversation on Twitter.


By Sarah Yeo

Totong and Erma's three sons drowned while hiding from authorities [Al Jazeera]
Totong and Erma’s three sons drowned while hiding from authorities [Al Jazeera]

We arrived at Totong and Erma’s water village home the day after they buried their three sons. The boys drowned while hiding from authorities during a raid to flush out illegal migrants.

The whole family, like most villagers here, is undocumented. They came to Sabah to flee conflict in the southern Philippines.

Emotions are running high. People shift restlessly in the heat of the small wooden house that sways at the slightest movement. The interview takes on three different languages with three-way translations. It is a challenge.

Then there is the matter of trust. A steady stream of journalists has flowed through their home in the past few days.

“But they all report a different story from what we tell them,” says Abraham Insani, a relative of the three boys and local community leader.

Totong and Erma speak of life as illegals, the constant fear and the helplessness they feel when faced with the authorities. Erma, the boys’ mother, is slouched in the corner, staring into space. “I’d better die too,” she says, addressing no one in particular.

Totong is struggling to keep it together in the presence of visitors. And then suddenly, he breaks. He grabs onto our reporter, sobbing and apologising for not being able to say more because he is too distraught. The rest of the house falls silent.

I look away from the private moment, and remind myself that there is much to be done, quickly. The sun is setting fast. We are unfamiliar faces in a “black area” that authorities target for crimes like smuggling, drug dealing and armed intrusion. There is only one way in and out of the village, across a maze of rickety wooden bridges. The plan is to get out before dark.

It seems just as soon as we arrive, tread over the most private moments of their lives, it is time to turn and leave. Condolences are hurried and night has fallen by the time we make the long drive back.

Follow Sarah Yeo on Twitter @yodayeo and Instagram @sarahyeosin