Understanding the legal identity and education provision for undocumented children in Malaysia

We are sharing findings of a new research paper published on 2nd February 2022 in PLOS ONE entitled ‘Undocumented: An examination of legal identity and education provision for children in Malaysia’authored by Tharani Loganathan, Derick Z Chan, Fikri Hassan, Alyson Ong and Hazreen Bin Abdul Majid.

Education is a fundamental human right. Yet there remain gaps in our understanding of undocumented children in Malaysia and their vulnerabilities in education access. This paper describes and contextualises undocumented children in Malaysia and their access to education.

Non-citizen populations are not homogenous, and it is important to recognise their diversity. Certain groups have more support, while others are more disadvantaged. We describe the risk of statelessness and educational exclusion for undocumented children, depending on their claims to citizenship in Malaysia or elsewhere.

We found that the lack of legal identity and non-recognition by the State is the root cause of vulnerability, experienced uniformly by undocumented populations in Malaysia. Without identity documents, an undocumented person is not eligible to enjoy a broad range of human rights including freedom of movement and access to health, education and social services provided by the State, commonly seen as citizenship entitlements.

Inconsistencies in treatment may relate to the political context, the community’s cultural and religious ties with Malaysia or their socio-economic status in their home country. We highlight in this paper, disparities faced by Rohingya refugees that despite being in a protracted refugee situation are denied residency, work, and education rights, are continually marginalised in the Malaysian context.

Similarly, Filipino migrants in Sabah have a complex migration history initially recognised as refugees but are now receiving little protection. Their status is contrasted with that of Indonesian migrant workers that receive some support from employers and the Indonesian Consulate in Sabah.

For undocumented children with Malaysian parentage, the lack of legal identity can be partially attributed to gender-discriminatory citizenship laws that place children at risk of statelessness if they are unable to obtain citizenship from the other parent.

Nevertheless, children with citizenship claims have more options compared to other undocumented children. The ‘Zero Reject Policy’ was launched to ease public school entry for undocumented children of Malaysian parentage, giving parents two years to produce Malaysian identity documents for their children. Unfortunately, uniform implementation of this policy has not been ensured nationally, with some schools refusing admittance of stateless children without documents to prove Malaysian citizenship.

Most non-citizen children rely on informal education lacking standardised curricula, resources, and accreditation for post-primary education progression.

For the refugee communities in Peninsular Malaysia, the alternate education system appears to be more structured with partial oversight from the UNHCR. Several centres prepare children to take international school-leaving examinations towards future resettlement.  However, since learning centres aren’t regulated by the government, there are inconsistencies in terms of syllabus, teachers, and facilities. Stateless Rohingya refugees in Peninsular Malaysia & Bajau Laut children at Sabah are the most marginalised and have the poorest educational opportunities at basic literacy & numeracy levels, despite the latter receiving minimal governmental education support.

Implementing a rights-based approach towards education would mean allowing all children equal opportunity to access and thrive in high-quality schools. Education is essential for the social and emotional well-being of children and would yield a significant return on investment as adults enter the workforce at higher wages and with greater skills.

Considerable planning and investment are necessary to accommodate and integrate non-citizen children into the Malaysian public school system in the long term. Other good practices that we may consider include mainstreaming the national curriculum into alternative education or accrediting informal education with national or regional equivalencies.

We caution against the stringent regulation of informal education, as this may result in learning centres being shut down. The government should instead support learning centres in providing quality education by allowing the use of the national syllabus for pre-school, primary and secondary education, and allowing for all children to sit for Malaysian school-leaving examinations. This would pave the way for post-secondary and tertiary education and better job prospects.

This research was funded by The Asia Pacific Observatory (APO) on Health Systems and Policies.