Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS) is calling for both the Federal and State governments to focus on the best interest of the child so that a smooth collaborative, effective and speedy system can be established for the many stateless children living here to have a clear nationality. This is their right according to the United Nations Convention of the Child (CRC Article 7.1).
There are many children who are stateless, including those made stateless by parents who do not register their children in the first two weeks of their birth; unregistered marriages; and mixed marriages between different ethnicities or different nationalities. In addition, there are special cases of children born out of wedlock; children who are a product of violence against women; children abandoned without their parentage being clearly known and children whose parents have lived in Sarawak for as long as they remember but have not had an IC issued.
As a signatory to the UN’s CRC, the national government has a duty to expedite clarifying a child’s nationality and ensuring that a child’s right to education, whether stateless or not, is not delayed. One of the achievements of the Sarawak Special Committee recently terminated by the Federal Government was its clear stand to schools within the State that all children were to be accepted with those of uncertain or foreign status to be charged a standard affordable fee. This was commendable and should be extended nationwide.
The sudden demise of this committee without consultation, the centralization of more of the processes in KL and the lack of clarity on the proposed SOPs – which are not due to be in operation until the year’s end – concerns SWWS.
Margaret Bedus, SWWS’s President, contends that Sarawak needs to be treated differently to West Malaysian states as “We have complexities here which are poorly understood by those from outside the State. The system for granting nationality, while a Federal matter needs to include in its system not only an awareness of the situation here but the ability to resolve the challenges,” she said.
She explained that the complexity has arisen due to Sarawak having a very dispersed and diverse population.
The logistics of distance from government officers, places of birth, marriage and home makes it difficult for those living in remote areas to comply with the expectations of those who assume it is a simple matter to collect all the documentation in one visit, or to nip home if something is missing or needs an additional signature. It is a common complaint that officers posted to Sarawak do not understanding the challenges, including time and cost, for those from the interior of Sarawak. Many are surprised to learn people cannot ring in advance to find out what is required as large swathes of the State have no telephone or internet connection.
The diversity includes a mix of various native laws and civil laws regarding marriages conducted at different times and the common occurrence of cross border unions some by traditional laws and some not. Then there is the range of languages spoken. Some frontline officers have been known to turn families of stateless children away because of language barriers. Even UTC officers have told some families from other cities of Sarawak to go to the Kuching office multiple times, despite this taking an economic toll on the families affected. Some cannot afford to make the journey. Will they now be expected to go to Putra Jaya?
SWWS therefore calls on the Home Ministry to reconsider their decision to disband the Sarawak Special Committee on Citizenship as its effectiveness is proven in not only handling the cases quicker – with applications post its establishment in 2016 being faster than those submitted earlier – but also more respectfully according to the native and State sensitivities. A State level committee also makes sense as should the Home Ministry agree all criteria has been met for citizenship then there is no further step required to provide an IC which meets Sarawak’s Immigration laws.
Whatever the final decision, SWWS calls for all SOPs to be transparent, for key resource people at both Federal and State Level to be identifiable to those tracking their applications and for procedures and decisions to be communicated efficiently to all people especially those living in the remote areas of Sarawak.
This will require better access to government services, including more effective, systematic outreach to semi-urban and rural areas; sensitivity training to the frontliners handling registration matters; and better collaboration between services. For instance, back in 2010, SWWS suggested primary schools liaised with JPN so children known to be lacking the required documentation for ICs when they reached 12 could be identified early and helped there and then.
Every effort has to be made to ensure stateless children are identified early and the situation rectified so their disadvantage is not prolonged and they are able to receive an education, sit for exams, gain employment and have a secure family life. This requires collaboration between State and National Governments regardless of which party is in power otherwise where is the new Malaysia and the respect for Sarawak which has been promised?