Hailing policy progress for refugee children


Abidin Ideas

ADVOCATES for refugee and children’s rights celebrated two announcements in recent days.

The first was on Feb 15, when Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution said that children would be removed from immigration centres and placed in the care of organisations that specialise in child welfare. This is something that activists have been advocating for many years, and it is good that this low-hanging fruit has finally been realised.

Children do not belong in detention, what more those who have already faced unimaginable hardship in escaping violent circumstances and undergoing arduous journeys over land and sea; not to mention those who are additionally victims of child trafficking.

More broadly, a push towards alternatives to detention (for adults as well) ought to be considered, using the emerging experiences of other countries, including Indonesia and Thailand, which no longer rely on detention in pursuing migration and refugee policies.

[Incidentally, I visited an immigration detention centre to distribute food and medical supplies from various donors some years ago, which drew praise and criticism in equal measure. Praise because such visits are in themselves educational and draw attention to the plight of those in detention, and of course those detained are receiving much-needed items. Criticism came from two opposite ends: from those who thought such visits were attempts to whitewash the situation (because “of course they will have it cleaned up and be on best behaviour”) and those who thought I should be helping law-abiding Malaysians instead of law-breaking foreigners.]

In the meantime, even with limited resources, organisations such as Yayasan Chow Kit and others are generally much better able to ensure children’s safety and future prospects than if they were held in detention. And while such organisations are able to provide a level of healthcare and education, the next logical step would be to widen access so that hospitals and schools can deliver those services properly.

At the moment, there are private schools who do educate such children (though mostly in KL), but often the legal situation is blurry, either because the recognition of documents (such as UNHCR cards) is inconsistent, or because the government is reluctant to issue certain licences, thus forcing charities to operate in a grey area, even though ministers and even foreign dignitaries visit and praise such institutions!

As pointed out by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan on Human Rights Day last December, denying stateless and refugee children access to formal education results in a generational cycle of poverty and destitution which imposes a burden on society. Resolving such legal uncertainties will provide comfort not only to service providers and the children, but also to potential donors, who will be assured that their contributions will not suddenly be deemed illegal.

The second announcement came three days later. This time the Home Minister was joined by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said to announce that the Cabinet had agreed to amend the Federal Constitution, to allow children born to Malaysian mothers overseas to obtain Malaysian citizenship automatically. This is in line with the unity government’s commitment to recognise equality for women and men, and to remove discrimination against women in Malaysia, they said.

There was euphoria among those who have worked so hard for so many years – in and out of the courts – to get citizenship for such children. At the same time, some concerns have since been raised about how many people might suddenly be eligible for citizenship if this was retroactively applied, and furthermore, how to deal with those who would be eligible for citizenship of more than one country, since Malaysia does not allow for dual citizenship. While all the legal wrinkles are being ironed out, the Children’s Commissioner under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has rightly suggested that the government find a temporary solution — such as issuing affected children with visas to enable their stay in the country.

Still, there will continue to be thousands of children in Malaysia who are stateless, without any citizenship at all. Perhaps the next announcement should be for their benefit! This should surely be one of the issues that can be adopted by the new independent Children’s Commissioner who is going to be appointed: an earlier reform announced by the Prime Minister in January.

Indeed, the pace of reforms relating to children is encouraging, and shows what can happen when the government listens and works together with civil society organisations who have been doing advocacy work for decades. It’s worth noting that there is no obvious direct electoral benefit to this, which makes the commitments all the more impressive.

* Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is trustee of Yayasan Chow Kit and vice-chair of the Ideas Academy Board of Governors.