Social Issues | Thought Leadership

There are millions of aliens in Malaysia

Sanidhya Mathur
April 30, 2021

Not aliens in the conventional sense, but undocumented and stateless individuals living within the Malaysian borders. Our recent trip to Sabah was meant to be a recce mission for an upcoming project, yet it became about so much more. Hundreds of thousands of individuals living in the surrounding islands around Sabah, hop from land to land in search for opportunities. Such is the nature of the island communities.

They don’t have any borders, only boats.

They illegally enter this region from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia and come in search for better employment opportunities. Yet in the process, they forfeit their identity. The children who are born on Malaysian soil from these migrants are left worse off as they aren’t able to receive proper birth certificates from their home country and are not recognised by the Malaysian government. They are left to work gruelling hours for bare minimum pay to make ends meet. They are met with prejudice and injustice. The stigma around the stateless individuals in Sabah is one of thieves, gangsters and criminals. While in Sabah we happened to meet men, women and children from this very community. We were humbled by their gratitude, yet dismayed by their living conditions and the lack of basic human necessities. In the process, we took some pictures with a few of the kids, who seemed overjoyed with the attention. Upon grappling with this issue, we looked at these photos of the kids and realised we wanted to tell their story. In doing so, we were faced with a dilemma that maybe releasing these photos without covering the children’s faces was inappropriate.

Have they not been dehumanized enough? If we don’t bring this to attention who will?

Considering the sensitive nature of their status, we understand the sentiment and respect their rights to consent and are aware that if they were to be identified by local police without documentation, they would be persecuted and sent to detention centres. With the concerns of legality, as well as protecting their livelihood in mind, we clearly understood the rationale behind blurring out their faces. But on the other hand, in the process, are we not further stripping away their identity? This ever increasing problem in Sabah has not been receiving the attention it deserves. Hundreds of thousands of individuals are living in fear. Without identification, without hygiene, without support. The act of censoring their faces contributes to the dehumanisation of these individuals too.

Sanidhya Mathur

Sanidhya Mathur is a content writer at Me.reka with a passion for producing content that reflects and communicates diverse experiences through a shared vision of social innovation.