In Sabah, children thought to be at risk of statelessness have factual links with Malaysia (as their country of residence and – in the vast majority of cases – of birth) and with at least one other country (usually Indonesia or the Philippines, from where their parents or grandparents originated). Therefore, in the case of children born in Sabah but considered ‘foreign’ by the Malaysian authorities, the key question is whether or not they would be considered nationals by Indonesia or the Philippines. In the case of children of Indonesian parents, this issue is fairly straightforward. Although many children of Indonesian migrants born in Sabah lack documents, there is an Indonesian consulate in Kota Kinabalu which regularly issues birth certificates and passports for the children of its nationals. For children of Indonesians living in the interior of Sabah, the expense of travelling to the city may prohibit the acquisition of such documents, making recognition of Indonesian citizenship theoretically possible, but practically difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, children of Indonesians are fairly unlikely to fall into the category of de jure stateless children.

The situation for the children and grandchildren of Filipino nationals is much more complex. The Philippines does not have a consulate in Sabah (on the island of Borneo) but in Kuala Lumpur (in peninsular Malaysia). This is largely because of ongoing political sensitivities surrounding the Philippines’ historical claim to Sabah as a former part of the ‘Sultanate of Sulu’. This ‘claim’ is hotly disputed by ‘native’ Sabahans, and its political fallout contributes to anti-Filipino sentiment in the state. Moreover, it is practically difficult for Filipinos in Sabah to obtain documents, given both the expense of travelling, and the fact that holders of IMM13 ‘refugee’ cards are unable to leave Sabah. The majority of those who might use the services of mobile registration units (which occasionally visit Sabah) do not know of their existence. Thus, whilst the government of the Philippines is known to be ‘generous’ in granting citizenship to even the undocumented children or grandchildren of refugees and migrants who claim it, in practice most are unable to make such a claim. Though the extent to which this renders the descendants of Filipinos vulnerable to statelessness may be debatable, such people clearly lack what has been termed an ‘effective nationality’.

As for indigenous people – indigenous populations often live in remote areas. Obtaining birth certificate for their children is associated with travel and cost, which many of these people cannot afford. Furthermore, the conditions of basic infrastructure in their respected villagers prevent them from going to the nearest town. By the time, they can register their children it has already ‘late registration of birth’. This is another obstacle for the indigenous people as far as their documentation is concerned. Under the Ordinance Registration of Birth & Death (Sabah Cap.123), every late registration of birth certificate must be endorsed by a Court of a Magistrate of the first class before the birth certificate can be accepted and process by the Registration Department. Often, such proceedings will consume longer time. The authorities acknowledged the predicament faced by the indigenous people. As such, the government has taken an initiative and created a mobile unit in the Registration Department and a mobile Court (the collaboration between the National Registration Department and the Office Chief Judge of Sabah & Sarawak) they arranged to meet the people in the interior and remote areas in Sabah. 

Statelessness on the ground in Sabah is complicated, not only by such cases of long-term residence by people lacking either an effective nationality, or by their possible preference for temporary stateless over Filipino nationality, in order that they might eventually gain the Malaysian nationality they feel they deserve. It is also complicated by the reality that many refugees from the Philippines originally came to Sabah to escape fighting, in which they were as likely to have been killed by their national army as by Muslim separatists. It is ironic that many Suluk people, who express ambivalence towards what they see as the ‘colonial’ Philippines state in Muslim-majority areas of that country, are simply treated as ‘Filipinos’ by Malaysians in Sabah. Some of the children of such ‘Filipinos’ had heard stories of violence and warfare from their parents and grandparents, whatever difficulties were experienced in Malaysia, it was at least safer than the place from which their family originated. Recent reports of fighting in and around Zamboanga city, in the south of the island of Mindanao, illustrate the reality of such safety concerns for those who lack desire to ‘return’ to the Philippines. Moreover, ongoing violence in the southern Philippines, from which many people continue to flee, complicates any easy separation of earlier ‘refugees’ from contemporary ‘economic migrants’.

On the ground, statelessness as a distinct issue but often ‘disappears’ from view, since it is almost completely entangled with wider issues of ‘illegality’. Even if one were clearly able to separate ‘stateless children’ from ‘undocumented children’, their practical experience is in fact very similar. That is why, despite their differing ethnicities and family histories, and despite the different degrees of assistance offered by their apparent ‘home’ countries, the children of Indonesians and Filipinos actually share many common experiences. Children who lack legal documents fear being picked up by the police during one of the regular operations – on buses, in shopping centres or in squatter settlements – aimed at ‘checking’ documents. This is particularly the case for children aged over 12, the age at which young Malaysian citizens are supposed to acquire an identity card. Whatever the complexity of legally establishing an individual as ‘stateless’, in Sabah (as has been argued for other contexts) legal statelessness must be analysed alongside the kind of ‘effective statelessness’ created by irregular migration. Indeed, given that holders of IMM13 passes are potentially stateless but nevertheless legally documented, it remains to be explored whether, in this specific context, there might be some advantages to being ‘stateless’ over being ‘undocumented’.