The Bajau Laut are a historically nomadic, maritime group who have become sedentary, primarily in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia. The group is also present in Indonesia and the Philippines. Its members live on the “edge of a fluid archipelago” between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The state often views mobile groups living in periphery regions as a threat, due to their supposed ability to evade state control more than sedentary groups. Moreover, the Bajau Laut’s independence from the land through their reliance on the sea for their livelihoods also made them “ungovernable.” The Bajau Laut have thus been described as “people caught in the marine interstices of the nation-state system… treated as ‘foreigners’ everywhere, as nationals nowhere.” The Bajau Laut are largely undocumented and at risk of statelessness. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable demographic is stateless children in Malaysia.
Challenges for the Bajau Laut
Due to their remote location and lack of awareness, children’s births are often not registered. In addition, due to their lack of identity documents, they are deprived of basic rights, including education and health care. They also have limited freedom of movement. The local authorities have continuously refrained from providing any form of assistance to the community. Since they are not being reached by humanitarian actors, their vulnerability is further increased. Furthermore, they are among the most discriminated-against groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. They are at risk of involuntary deportation to their supposed country of origin which is the Philippines.
The Bajau Laut people also live within an area of high conservation and tourism value. As a result, they have had various restrictions imposed on them by tourism and conservation authorities. This further affects stateless children’s access to education. Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal (Iskul), a community organization, was formed in 2015 to provide children with education, mainly surrounding literacy, hygiene practices and learning the Bahasa Malaysia language. The school also provides free meals for up to 30 Bajau Laut children per class. Women on the islands are able to earn an income by preparing these meals.
The Effect of COVID-19 on Malaysian Children
During the COVID-19 pandemic, stateless children in Malaysia could not attend face-to-face classes and also lacked online access to lessons. Additionally, awareness regarding COVID-19 was low. Iskul addressed this by producing songs and videos about COVID-19 prevention measures and vaccination. The organization encouraged students to sing together and show the videos to their friends. Once in-person classes resumed, the teachers conducted hygiene workshops, encouraging the children to develop good habits such as brushing their teeth every morning. They also appointed student ambassadors to educate family members. This was alongside developing a shadow play theatre production, called ‘Omadal Fights Corona’, to raise awareness around COVID-19. The production was performed for both community members and visitors in the native language. Moreover, the community organization taught pregnant women and new mothers how to manage their health. It also provided this group of women with health supplements.
Furthermore, the strict movement control order implemented by the Malaysian Government to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus adversely affected families and stateless children in Malaysia. This significantly affected fishing, their main source of livelihood. Families suffered two-fold from this, as both their income and their source of food were impacted. Following an announcement by the Sabah government that everyone would be included in food ration distribution, regardless of nationality, and a statement by the Defense Minister to decentralize distribution, Iskul worked with the authorities to expedite and facilitate the food distribution to families on the islands. In order to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the organization ensured that food basket delivery was contingent upon families taking a COVID-19 test. In addition, the community organization also distributed food and vitamin C.
These innovative activities undertaken by a small, underfunded school in a remote location highlight the impact of funding community-based organizations, which have the trust of the community. Through these efforts, families on the islands have been able to access lifesaving assistance. This has also enabled stateless children in Malaysia to access education.
– Ottoline Spearman