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Statelessness and ‘foreignness’ amongst the children of migrants in Sabah


by Catherine Allerton

Children in an informal ‘school’ in a squatter settlement in Kota Kinabalu. This settlement has since been demolished. (photo by Catherine Allerton)

Children in an informal ‘school’ in a squatter settlement in Kota Kinabalu. This settlement has since been demolished. (photo by Catherine Allerton)

In some advocacy literature, or online photo exhibitions, stateless children are symbolised by the image of a young, wide-eyed child, looking forlornly into the distance. Such images may also be accompanied by text suggesting that stateless children are ‘lost’ or are ‘lacking an identity’.

I find such images of forlorn hopelessness perplexing since they are such a contrast to my own experiences, acquired whilst researching the lives of children at risk of statelessness in Sabah, East Malaysia. From August 2012 to August 2013 I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Kota Kinabalu with the children of Indonesian and Filipino migrants.

Ethnography, the primary methodological tool of anthropologists, aims at uncovering, through the sharing of daily experiences, people’s taken-for-granted and everyday understandings. I was interested not only in the problems that children might face, but in their own perspectives on their past, present and possible future.

The children I got to know in KK were, like many children, dynamic and exuberant, intensely interested in Japanese anime films, Korean pop music or Tausug pangalay dances. They had strong family ties, spoke numerous regional languages (in addition to being fluent in Malay) and can scarcely be described as ‘lost’ or ‘lacking an identity’. Indeed, one of my most powerful memories from fieldwork is of Mudin, an eleven year-old boy who, in response to my possibly insensitive question about his ethnic origins, looked fiercely at me and exclaimed, ‘I am a person from here!’

This article is in part a reflection on the difficulties, for a child like Mudin, in being taken seriously as a ‘local’ or ‘person from here’ in Sabah. Although statelessness, as an international issue of concern, tends to be approached primarily in terms of law and policy, we also need to understand the experiences and perspectives of people at risk of statelessness. In particular, in Sabah, we need to take seriously people’s sense of exclusion from the Malaysian nationality to which they feel they belong.

According to the currently accepted definition of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), outlined in the ‘Prato Conclusions’, an individual is considered legally stateless if all states to which he or she has a ‘relevant’ or ‘factual’ link fail to consider the person as a national.

In Sabah, children thought to be at risk of statelessness have factual links with Malaysia (as their country of residence and – in the case of most children I knew – of birth) and with at least one other country (usually Indonesia or the Philippines, from where their parents or grandparents originated).

Therefore, for children born in Sabah but considered ‘foreign’ by the Malaysian authorities, the key question is whether or not they would be considered nationals by Indonesia or the Philippines. For the children of Indonesian parents, this issue is fairly straightforward. Although many children of Indonesian migrants born in Sabah lack documents, there is an Indonesian consulate in Kota Kinabalu which regularly issues birth certificates and passports for the children of its nationals. Accessing Indonesian documents is therefore possible, even if it is more difficult for those living on remote oil palm plantations.

The situation for the children and grandchildren of Filipino nationals is much more complex. The Philippines does not have a consulate in Sabah but in Kuala Lumpur. This is largely because of ongoing political sensitivities surrounding the Philippines’ historical claim to Sabah as a former part of the ‘Sultanate of Sulu’. This ‘claim’ is of course hotly disputed by Sabahans, and its political fallout contributes to anti-Filipino sentiment in the state.

Moreover, it is practically difficult for Filipinos in Sabah to obtain documents from KL, given both the expense of travelling, and the fact that holders of IMM13 cards (given to refugees and their descendants) are unable to leave Sabah to travel to the peninsula. The majority of those who might use the services of mobile registration units (which occasionally visit Sabah) do not know of their existence. Thus, whilst the government of the Philippines is known to be ‘generous’ in granting citizenship to even the undocumented children or grandchildren of refugees and migrants who claim it, in practice most are unable to make such a claim. Such people therefore clearly lack what has been termed an ‘effective nationality’.

During my fieldwork with children and their families, my attention was often drawn to the emotional realities that complicate discussions of citizenship or belonging on the ground. Take 10 year-old Amira, a Suluk girl holding an IMM13 card, whose grandparents came to Sabah as refugees in the 1970s.

Once, during a discussion with her and her friends about the differences between Sabah and the Philippines, Amira told me: ‘I don’t know anything about the Philippines’. She has no family that she knows of left there, has never been there, and explicitly refuses to discuss it as a place with which she should have any connection. As holders of IMM13 cards, Amira and her parents are ‘legal’, in the sense of being allowed to remain in Sabah.  However, they still lack a nationality.

Whether or not the government of the Philippines would recognise them as citizens, and notwithstanding the inability of Amira and her brothers to attend Malaysian government school, the important point in their case is that they do not want to be Filipino citizens, since they feel they belong in Malaysia.

Thus, when the alternative learning centre where Amira studied organised document-processing by the Philippines National Statistics Office, neither Amira nor her brothers were interested in applying for such documents. This implies that for some people, the impulse to escape statelessness is by no means as strong as the desire to ‘hold out’ for a particular, preferred nationality that might be gained in the future.

On the ground, statelessness as a distinctive issue often disappears from view, since it is almost completely entangled with wider issues of ‘illegality’ and ‘foreignness’. Even if one were clearly able to separate ‘stateless children’ from ‘undocumented children’, their practical experience is in fact very similar. This is why, despite their differing ethnicities and family histories, and despite the different degrees of assistance offered by their apparent ‘home’ countries, the children of Indonesians and Filipinos actually share many common experiences.

Children who lack legal documents fear being picked up by the police during one of the regular operations – on buses, in shopping centres or in squatter settlements – aimed at ‘checking’ documents. This is particularly the case for children aged over 12, the age at which young Malaysian citizens are supposed to acquire an identity card. Whatever the complexity of legally establishing an individual as ‘stateless’, in Sabah legal statelessness must be analysed alongside the kind of ‘effective statelessness’ created by undocumented migration. Indeed, given that holders of IMM13 passes are potentially stateless but nevertheless legally documented, it remains to be explored whether, in this specific context, there might be some advantages to being ‘stateless’ over being ‘undocumented’.

During my fieldwork, I observed the limitations that illegality placed on children’s lives, and their occasionally defiant responses. I laughed as children, so different to those conventional images of forlorn or ‘lost’ stateless people, made jokes about ethnicity, about police checkpoints and about corruption. I also saw a frustration amongst some teenagers as they became aware that, in their perpetual status as ‘foreigners’, they are also doomed to do the jobs (cleaning, construction, factory-work) that ‘foreigners’ do.

In Sabah, children such as Mudin and Amira are considered ‘foreign’ and excluded from school, treated as unwanted by wider society until old enough to take up the kinds of menial labour performed by ‘foreigners’. Indeed, it is such children’s perpetual ‘foreignness’, rather than statelessness or illegality per se, that prevent them from accessing education in Malaysian schools. Yet, as I have tried to show here, such children do not necessarily consider themselves as ‘foreigners’, let alone as ‘lacking an identity’.

This is why, in considering statelessness, we must not neglect broader issues of justice and human rights, or the fact that children of migrants may not simply desire ‘documents’, but recognition of their right to be considered ‘people from here’.


 Catherine Allerton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is an expert in the anthropology of Southeast Asia, landscape, kinship and childhood, and has previously conducted research amongst the Manggarai people of west Flores, Indonesia. Her current research concerns illegality, work and education amongst the children of migrants in Kota Kinabalu, and is funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/J012262/1]. Catherine can be contacted at


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