The Malaysian state of Sabah is currently embroiled in a bad-tempered political debate about whether or not the many thousands of stateless children living in the state should be granted birth certificates. For supporters, this measure will enable such children to finally access the education from which they are currently excluded. For opponents – rallying to the call of ‘Sabah for Sabahans’ – this is another ruse by peninsular politicians to enable ‘illegal immigrants’ to become citizens of Sabah, further altering the demographic make-up of a state where perhaps half of the population are ‘foreigners’ and their descendants.

One thing is clear – neither side in this debate are considering what might be important or meaningful to such children in their own lives. As so often when a group of children are the centre of debate, political ideologies are best served by constructing such children as a homogenous, silent category, alternately (in this instance) ‘lost’ and ‘vulnerable’, or ‘criminal’ and ‘illegal’.

I’d like to contrast these stereotypical images of pitiable or threatening ‘stateless children’ with two of the real children I met during ethnographic fieldwork in Kota Kinabalu from 2012-13. This fieldwork was focused not on statelessness per se, but on the multiple exclusions (from school, healthcare, citizenship and spaces in the city) faced by the children and grandchildren of Filipino and Indonesian refugees and migrants. Although the majority of the children I worked with were born in Sabah, they are nevertheless considered ‘foreigners’ in the state and, whatever their ‘legal’ status, are unable to access public education. For many Sabahans, the very existence of these children is unauthorised, since – according to Malaysian immigration regulations – ‘foreign workers’ are not supposed to marry or have families in Malaysia. However, children themselves have a variety of forms and intensities of attachment to both Sabah and their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin.

Let’s begin with Rohit, an 11 year-old boy, with two older brothers. Rohit’s mother is Bajau and came to Sabah aged 12, having finished elementary school in the Philippines. She has never been back to the Philippines since and works selling vegetables in a market on the outskirts of the city. His father is of Suluk ethnicity, and was born to refugee parents in the small Sabahan city of Sandakan. Rohit’s father works as a welder, and has never been to the Philippines. Rohit, his parents and his brothers are all holders of an IMM13 card, also known as the ‘yellow pass’, an identity document given to refugees and their families. Although this documentation enables them to live and work in Sabah, it requires annual, paid renewal, prohibits them from travelling outside the state, and does not enable them to apply for a bank account, access education or receive subsidised healthcare or other government services.

Rohit himself is a quiet but determined boy; he enjoys playing football and looking after his family’s chickens. He has only recently been able to access education, through an alternative education centre in the city, and has never been to the Philippines. His family don’t send any remittances to the Philippines, and Rohit has no knowledge of or particular interest in the country. He certainly does not see it as his rightful home, to which he should ‘return’. Indeed, like many children I knew, he thought that the war and subsequent violent conflicts in the southern Philippines had turned it into a place ‘full of ghosts’. Rohit’s points of reference and interest – including a web of family connections – are in Sabah. Although he is proud of his mixed Bajau-Suluk heritage, and has knowledge of both languages, claiming this heritage is very different to claiming an association with the Philippines. This is an important point, since many in Sabah directly associate such ethnicities not only with ‘foreignness’ but also with security threats, given a small number of incidents involving armed infiltrators in the state.

The second child I want to introduce is 10 year-old Thomas, the son of Catholic migrants from Adonara, a small island in eastern Indonesia. Although Thomas’ parents were both born in Indonesia, they migrated to Sabah as teenagers, and met in the state. Thomas and his two younger siblings have no birth certificates or other identity documents. Thomas’ mother is currently undocumented, with an expired passport, and was too frightened of both arrest and high medical bills to give birth to her children in hospital. Thomas’ father, who works in agriculture on the edge of the city, does have a valid passport, but the rest of the family endure the restricted mobility of ‘illegality’.

Like Rohit, Thomas has never been to his parents’ home villages. However, he is marked by the enduring concern of his family in Indonesia. When he was a young child, Thomas suffered from ill health. His grandmother in Adonara, who was involved in various transnational healing practices to ensure Thomas’ return to health, put a taboo on Thomas cutting his hair until he has visited her in his ‘origin’ village. Today, Thomas has a very long plait of hair down his back, a bodily reminder of his connections to his kin in Indonesia, who he has yet to meet but who continue to influence his life and to hope for his eventual ‘return’. Meanwhile, in the present day, Thomas is often unable, for fear of document-checking, to visit kin living in the same city, and his parents lack the money to fund any trip to Indonesia in the near future.

Rohit’s and Thomas’ stories demonstrate the range of histories and situations experienced by the children of migrants in Kota Kinabalu, and in Sabah more generally. Although Rohit’s family live in an ongoing legal limbo, and although Rohit himself, his brothers and his parents are effectively stateless, they are nevertheless in many respects considered lucky given that they do have some form of valid identity documents. Meanwhile, although Thomas – given the existence of an Indonesian consulate in the city – could be considered to be at a lesser risk of statelessness, his undocumented status makes it hard for him to move around. These boys have very different connections with their parents’ places of origin. In Rohit’s case, he has virtually no connection with or interest in the Philippines. In Thomas’ case, he has no first-hand knowledge of Indonesia, though his family there remain involved in his life, preventing him cutting his hair, hoping that he will safeguard his health by returning to his parents’ home village.

However, despite the differences between Rohit and Thomas in terms of ethnicity, legal status and potential statelessness, they in fact share much in common. They were both born in Sabah and have only ever known the state as home. They are both denied access to Malaysian public school. They both started education, in alternative learning centres, at a relatively old age. They are both unlikely to ever gain educational qualifications that would be recognised in Malaysia, or to continue to secondary education. Most significantly, they are both fairly likely to work with one another – or with similar peers – in the future. For, whilst many Sabahans have great difficulty in allowing stateless children the right – enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child – to birth certificates, they appear to have little difficulty in allowing apparently ‘unauthorised’ children to work in their factories, construction sites, restaurants and home spaces. Such workplaces become sites of cosmopolitan belonging for ‘foreign’ youth, who become friendly with those from a myriad of ethnic and religious (though never ‘native’ Sabahan) backgrounds.

The children of migrants I know in Kota Kinabalu – many of whom are at risk of statelessness – are not ‘lost’ or ‘criminal’. They may, however, be in a vulnerable position, and from the perspective of Malaysian immigration law, they are often ‘illegal’. During my fieldwork with these children, I laughed as they made jokes about illegality, about ethnicity, about police checkpoints and about corruption. I also saw a frustration amongst many teenagers as they became aware that, in their perpetual status as ‘foreigners’, they are also doomed to do the jobs (cleaning, construction, factory-work) that ‘foreigners’ do. Children such as Rohit and Thomas have only ever known a life in Sabah. If given the chance, they would embrace the opportunity to attend school with other Sabahan children, and to contribute to a dynamic multicultural society. However, the current level of debate in Sabah – in which these children are continually constructed as a dangerous, foreign element who are undeserving of recognition or even rights – makes that chance seem very unlikely.

Catherine Allerton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is currently writing a book on exclusion and belonging amongst the children of migrants in Sabah. Her research in Sabah was sponsored by the British Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/J012262/1].