Could a permanent national task force resolve Malaysia’s stateless problem?

Human rights lawyer Honey Tan said the authorities’ discretionary nature of granting citizenship poses a 'big challenge'. — File picture by Choo Choy May
Human rights lawyer Honey Tan said the authorities’ discretionary nature of granting citizenship poses a 'big challenge'. — File picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, March 25 — The federal government should set up permanent task forces in every state in Malaysia to ensure stateless children with genuine cases are recognised as citizens, a lawyer has proposed.

Simon Siah said the federal government would from time to time announce the formation of task forces to register stateless children, but noted that these task forces are only “temporary measures” and that most people didn’t even know they exist, let alone how to approach them. 

He noted that there is currently a task force in Sarawak to help register stateless children and to assist the Home Ministry by providing recommendations after the National Registration Department (NRD) officials investigate such claims, but noted it will only run until year end.

“Such move is a move in the right direction but I would suggest that the Task Force to be made permanent so that each State under the ministry of women and children can assist to ensure that genuine application are approved and these children are given an identity as a Malaysian,” he added.

Task forces on statelessness: Here’s what we know

Initiatives in Malaysia to tackle this monumental problem appear to be on an ad hoc basis, including the formation of a special task force which Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had announced in September 2015 to help Sarawakians who do not have identification papers.

This task force is reportedly headed by minister Datuk Joseph Entulu Belaun with a deadline of December 31, 2017 to resolve such issues.

Ahmad Zahid, who is also home minister, had also announced on February 3 that a special task force would be formed under the NRD to assist stateless ethnic Chinese in Sarawak. The federal government later agreed to extend this to cover stateless Chinese and Indian in the peninsula to be headed by three ministers, who are also the presidents of MCA, MIC and Gerakan.

Local NGO DHRRA meanwhile wrote last April 15 that its MyDocument initiative had since 2004 successfully assisted 8,350 individuals to obtain their birth certificates and identification cards, while around 5,600 cases remain pending with the NRD.

In a December 2015 news report, the MyDaftar programme under the NRD and the Special Implementation Taskforce of the Cabinet Committee on the Indian Community was reported to have helped over 12,000 undocumented ethnic Indians obtain identification papers in a period of four years.

Too arbitrary

Siah believed the government’s decision-making process when it comes to citizenship bids by stateless individuals is “too arbitrary”.

“Applicants apply to JPN and JPN simply asked the applicants to wait without giving them a time frame. Who makes the decision? How does the decision came about? Why was it rejected? If rejected how to appeal? 

“They should make such application more transparent and the process must be properly explained to the applicant where most of them are not aware what to do,” he said, referring to the NRD by its Malay initials.

Highlighting the difficulties faced by applicants, he said the federal government should reduce the amount of documentation required and “be flexible where it is necessary” for genuine cases of stateless children seeking citizenship.

“Most of the people who are trapped in this legal quagmire are those from the lower income and less educated families and to require them to produce documents which in the first place they do not have is troublesome enough. Some of them are not even able to read and write,” said Siah, who had previously helped stateless individuals living in rural Sarawak.

He claimed that NRD officers at times do not even bother to give advice or assist these individuals in filling up forms.

“Some have to travel miles just to get the form and then go back to get their ketua kampung (village head) to sign and come back to JPN and then found out something is missing and have to go back again,” he said.

These repeated trips to complete the citizenship application process would be unnecessary if the NRD can be more “proactive” by providing assistance or carrying out their own investigations such as interviewing the relevant village head or pursuing DNA tests, he said.

Such proactive action would be especially important if the applicant is a child whose interest is “paramount”, he said, and cited Article 8 of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child, which requires the federal government to provide all appropriate assistance and protection to ensure the preservation of the child’s identity — including nationality, name and family relations.

Human rights lawyer Honey Tan said the authorities’ discretionary nature of granting citizenship poses a “big challenge”.

“It is best if the decision-making authority gives clear reasons why an application is rejected. This will go a long way to dispel certain perceptions e.g., that Muslims are favoured over non-Muslims, and that the rich are favoured over the poor,” she told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

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