We have a Zero Reject Policy, so what’s next?

Statelessness is an issue that has plagued Malaysia for years, especially in the states of Sabah and Sarawak. The government implemented a new Zero Reject Policy in 2019 that allows stateless children to register for public schools with the condition that at least one parent is a Malaysian citizen. On 14 February 2019, it was reported that three stateless children were granted citizenship after years of legal battles with some as long as 5 years. The government’s recent progress in tackling this issue is definitely long overdue and it raises the hopes of many who have appealed to the government to solve this issue for many years.

The first step in tackling this issue is to identify the problem. In October 2018, when answering questions about the Zero Reject Policy, YB Teo Nie Ching, Deputy Minister of Education, cited a figure of 290,437 stateless children in Malaysia, a figure from October 2016. This brings into question if the Zero Reject Policy was developed using outdated statistics.

In order for any stateless related policies to be implemented, the government needs to have a comprehensive understanding on the situation. This understanding goes beyond knowing the number of stateless children but important questions like geographical distribution, age distribution, circumstances that led to their statelessness, need to be answered as well.

Thus, the government would have to actively work on the ground to do both qualitative and quantitative research. However, as reported by the UNHCR, statelessness can lead individuals to feel insecure and frightened to move around, especially when government officials are present. Thus, it would be helpful for the government to work and support NGOs like the Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) Malaysia who already work amongst the stateless community. It would be more effective to enlist those who have already earned the trust of stateless persons to conduct ground level research.

Secondly, there must be a political will amongst politicians, both in East and West Malaysia. Citizens in Sabah and Sarawak have long been skeptical about any government steps to provide citizenship to undocumented/stateless people as it can be seen as a political move by the ruling party to increase their voting base. Solving this problem needs to be more than just a political decision but it needs a humanitarian act to ensure no children are left behind.

The political will to help stateless children should go beyond curing symptoms, instead addressing the issue at its roots. It is unfortunate that even with access to education, the reality is that without citizenship, these children are still limited in many areas like freedom of movement, employment opportunities, scholarships and so on. Therefore, more must be done by our politicians to tackle the problem as a whole, starting by identifying and eradicating the circumstances that could lead to the child being stateless.

For example, one of the main causes of statelessness according to Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, is that people in rural areas are unable to afford travelling to urban centers to register their children, and they are unaware that their newborns have to be registered within 42 days. Other factors like nationality laws and the procedures of granting citizenship to stateless children all need to be review by our government if there were to be any improvements.

The United Nations is expected to release a study on Sabah’s stateless children in the second quarter of 2019 along with policy recommendations for the state government. Perhaps this would be the push that the government needs to further resolve the issue of childhood statelessness. Maybe it would even push Malaysia to be party to the UN’s 1945 and 1961 Convention on Statelessness that we have yet to ratify. Nevertheless, we are a party to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990, which states in Article 7.1 that the child has a right to a nationality.

The solution to childhood statelessness is not simple and straightforward, but with proper steps taken to understand the situation combined with the political will from our lawmakers, there is no reason why our country would not be able to tackle this issue, even if its one step at a time.

Crystal Teoh (Master of International Relations, University of Melbourne) is an intern with ASLI Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), Jan 2019 to February 2019.

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