Suhakam says concerned about stateless youths detained by Sabah police

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, June 20 — The National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) is expected to issue a statement about the detention of eight Bajau youths by the Sabah police, including three minors who were arrested for joining a protest to demand clean water in front of the chief minister's office last week.

The eight youths are believed to be of the Bajau tribe, the nomadic community that has inhabited Sabah's porous sea borders for centuries and whose people are still undocumented because of their migratory culture. Many Bajau people, sometimes spanning generations, are considered "stateless".

Wan Shakila Adiela, a coordinator with Sabah-based grassroots non-governmental organisation, Borneo Komrad, said they were informed about the Suhakam visit earlier today. Shakila and her group are now working to free the eight youths.

"Yes they told us they would visit the Kapayan station but we haven't had any update yet," the activist told Malay Mail.

The eight were arrested together with a local grassroots activist who kickstarted a campaign to get Bajau's stateless youths access to education last week, on grounds that they carried no valid documentation, according to news reports citing the Sabah police.

Five of them are said to be aged between 18 and 22, while the three are below 18. The activist, Syahfeeq Rondin, a teacher, was arrested under Section 55B of the Immigration Act, for ferrying persons who are considered "illegal".

The recent arrests came amid growing public scrutiny over the Sabah state government's treatment of the Bajau people. Last month, the Sabah authorities burned several homes belonging to Bajau Laut families of the Bajau Laut tribe around the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, an incident that was widely recorded and later made viral.

In a statement issued on June 9, Suhakam said it is closely monitoring the recent evictions by the Sabah government against the Bajau Laut community in Semporna. Suhakam said there is a need to assess the broader humanitarian impact of these actions despite prior notice given to the affected communities.

The Bajau Laut is a unique and historically marginalised community facing significant challenges, including limited access to basic services such as healthcare and education.

While recognising the state government’s intention to enhance security, Suhakam emphasised the importance of a balanced approach that addresses the immediate needs of those affected by the demolitions.

The Sea Bajau people are among the poorest in Sabah, having been denied access to basic rights like education and healthcare because of their stateless status.

Meanwhile Unicef issued a statement today repeating its call for the Malaysian government to give children universal access to education, including those it deemed stateless.

"Education is a fundamental right, yet too many refugee and stateless children are not in school. Excluded from the education system, children are left without recognized credentials, social networks, mentors, or peer support," the United Nations agency said in a statement to celebrate World Refugee Day.

"Additionally, their lack of legal status also puts them at risk of arrest and detention."

As of September 2023, more than 1,400 girls and boys were reportedly held in immigration detention centres in Malaysia, according to Unicef's data.