Stateless Children Rights to Education

The world’s poorest countries are not alone in facing the challenges of promoting universal education as the same struggles can be seen in the outskirt regions near the borders of developing countries like Malaysia. In Malaysia’s, there are challenges in promoting universal education to the stateless children, who are deprived of compulsory education due to the lack of a legal status, poverty or geography barriers.

Though all Malaysian states face the issue of stateless children due to various reasons, the situation in Sabah is the most severe. According to media reports, there are around 52,000 stateless children living at the brink of Sabah’s society.

They come from various sources of origin, from descendants of the legal or illegal Indonesian labourers who work in the agriculture sectors, or the children of refugees who fled conflict areas in Southern Philippines many years ago. They could also be the children of the nomadic Bajau Laut ethnic group, who live around the territorial waters of Sabah, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Al Jazeera once conducted a documentary of the villages in Sabah where these stateless children live. In the remote areas where there is a lack of education facilities, these children, who should be in school, were found aimlessly wandering around. Some even gathered on the street, sniffing glue in the attempt to cover up their sense of hunger.

According to the locals in Tawau, the children of Bajau Laut are constantly present, begging for alms all over the streets of town. Local university academicians explain that the reason these nomads, who have been living with the sea, are forced to come to shore to beg due to the establishment of marine conservation areas in recent times, which have caused them to lose their fishing grounds. Moreover, their traditional fishing methods are unsustainable and has resulted in the reduction of fish production, leading to an overall unsustainable livelihood. If these children were given the opportunity and access to basic education, perhaps they wouldn’t end up begging on the streets at this very young age.

Based on a report published by UNICEF Malaysia, the 1996 Education Act clearly states that ‘each child has the right to quality education enabling an individual potential for national development’. Yet, due to their legal status, they will have to pay school fees to access the formal education. Education fees, though in small amounts, are a burden to the marginalised group. Although refugees and stateless children can apply for student cards through paperwork, these procedures are barriers to them.

The UNICEF report eventually led to the Alternative Learning Programme, leading to the setting up of education centres in remote rural villages. The syllabus provided in such centres cater for literacy, numeracy, life skills, and civic mindedness. The report pointed out that in several cases, the stateless children who participated in the programme have seen much improvement in the skills provided.

In fact, UNICEF is not the first organisation to set up education centres in the region. Previously, a Korean NGO, the Humana Children Aid Society and others have also helped to set up such centres. Although there were several non-profit organisation already providing alternative options accessing education, such efforts are still far from adequate.

The provision of education to stateless children has been both challenging and controversial. Though the issue is complicated, we cannot ignore the rights of children and should confront the problem from a humanitarian perspective, and admit that every human being has the right to education. Perhaps from there, we could find common ground in the arguments towards helping the stateless children.

Original article in Chinese:



根據聯合國兒童基金會的一項研究報告(Reaching the Unreached)指出,馬來西亞《1996年教育法令》明確規定每個孩子有權接受素質教育,以確保個體的潛能開發與國家發展。基於這些兒童無國籍的身份,他們必須繳交學費才能接受教育,然而對於處於社會邊緣的家庭而言,教育是一件奢侈品。儘管難民與無國籍兒童可以通過文書手續申請“學生卡”,但申請過程複雜繁瑣是一道不易跨越的門檻。

由此,聯合國兒童基金會在此研究報告提出了一個方案並已落實,且有相應的成果,即與教育部合作的“替代學習計劃”(Alternative Learning Programmes)。在偏遠的鄉村地區設立一個教育中心,開設基礎語言、數學、生活技能等課程。報告指出,儘管是個別的案例,但參與計劃的無國籍學生取得了明顯的學習成果。


無國籍兒童的教育問題讓從事社會發展的工作者傷透了腦筋,儘管課題複雜但不應就此將兒童受教育的權利掃在地毯下。正視問題若能從人道主義的立場出發,承認人人都有受教育的權利,或許就能在針對無國籍兒童的爭論中找到一個共同的基礎(common ground).

Article published in Sin Chew Daily.

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