The International Observatory on Statelessness


The most pressing cases of statelessness in Malaysia include the Rohingya and undocumented children of migrants in Sabah.

Thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma currently live in Malaysia. Around 15,000 to 20,000 are registered, but unofficial estimates reach as high as 70,000. The Rohingya first came to the country in 1984, but in 1992, they arrived in large numbers after waves of expulsions by the Burmese military regime. Although Malaysia’s constitution provides citizenship to children born on its territory who would otherwise be stateless, it does not extend this provision to Rohingya children. Because they do not have permission to live legally in Malaysia, these children cannot attend school, families are at risk of arrest and deportation, and the population is impoverished.

In November 2004, after years of living in a state of limbo in Malaysia, the Malaysian government recognized the Rohingya as refugees, as “people of recognized concern.” The government issued temporary stay permits in the form of the IMM13 document, an immigration pass for stateless people. These documents do not represent a durable solution for ending the Rohingya’s statelessness. The government has not fulfilled its promise to grant the Rohingya identity cards or temporary work permits.

Decades of irregular migration to Sabah in eastern Malaysia have resulted in large numbers of undocumented children of migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia who are stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Numbers vary, but some estimate that 36,000 stateless children of Indonesian origin are in Sabah, mostly children of palm oil plantation workers. According to the head of a government task force on the issue, no exact figure exists yet on the number of stateless children of Filipino origin, but the number is predicted to be higher.

Undocumented Filipino and Indonesian immigrants in Sabah often fail to register their children’s birth, putting them at risk of statelessness. Those migrants who are arrested and deported often leave their children behind, forced to live alone on the streets. Lacking any other family ties in Malaysia, tracing the children’s heritage back to their parents’ country of origin in order to apply for a passport may be difficult. If no government recognizes these undocumented children as nationals, then the children are effectively stateless.