What are the implications of statelessness for children’s everyday lives? Does the experience of statelessness differ qualitatively from that of ‘illegality’? How do children of migrants and refugees come to terms with the implications of their ‘foreign’ status as they grow up in a country largely hostile to their presence?
A Suluk/ Tausug girl’s photo of the Filipino squatter settlement where she lives.
These are the some of the questions that I am currently exploring through fieldwork with children in the Malaysian state of Sabah, northeast Borneo. During the 1970s and 80s, thousands of Filipinos arrived in Sabah as refugees from the civil war in the southern Philippines. Later, many more Filipinos came to the state as economic migrants. At the same time, thousands of Indonesians have arrived to work on plantations, in factories or in domestic service, often following old networks of connectivity between Borneo and Sulawesi. Many of these foreign workers and refugees have married and had children in Sabah. However, a combination of different factors (including parents’ undocumented status and uncertainties regarding processes of registration) means that many of these children are stateless.
I arrived in Malaysia in August 2012 and will be here until August 2013 conducting fieldwork with the children of Indonesian and Filipino migrants and refugees. Based in the city of Kota Kinabalu, my primary methodology is that of participant observation: talking to children (in Malay), observing as much as possible of their lives, meeting their families and friends. Each week, I visit a number of different learning centres that provide education to the children of Indonesian and Filipino migrants. Through these learning centres I have got to know a wide range of children with very different experiences of illegality, exclusion and belonging, and with quite varied connections to their parents’ home country. I have discovered that families often have mixed statuses, for example, with some siblings having Malaysian citizenship (often through complex processes of ‘adoption’) and others being stateless, or with mothers sacrificing their own legal status in order to prioritise paying for their children’s documents.
Of course, uncovering children’s own perspectives on illegality and citizenship is by no means straightforward. I am currently working with children aged 8 to 18 and hope that working with this range of ages will allow me to track the gradual emergence of understanding amongst children about their situation. In addition to the conventional anthropological techniques of participant observation, I am also employing a range of different methods designed to engage children and to utilise their strengths. These include drawings, worksheets (for example, asking children to compare Sabah and their parents’ home country) and simple questionnaires. These methods have to be continually adjusted for different levels of literacy, and, as far as possible, I always try to discuss children’s individual answers with them. I have held brainstorming sessions with groups of children where each child is given different-coloured ‘Post-It’ notes to write down or draw what, for example, they are worried about. Recently, because of some difficulties in gaining access to urban children’s lives away from school, I have been lending children digital cameras and asking them to take photographs of what is important to them. After giving them copies of the photos they take, I also ask them to comment, in written or verbal form, on why they chose that picture. One girl photographed the welding workshop where her father works and where her family lives in a small, makeshift house. Next to this she wrote, ‘I don’t have any friends where I live’. Another photographed herself on top of a pile of rubble in the quarry where she lives and wrote, ‘I think this quarry is quite a beautiful view, don’t you?’
Not only are learning centres excellent venues for meeting and talking with children, education itself is a key concern of my research. Although Malaysia is a state party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it maintains a reservation on Article 28, the obligation to make primary education compulsory and available to all. Since 2002, ‘foreign’ and undocumented children have had virtually no access to public education. In my fieldwork so far, I have talked to many young people who remember when their education was cut short and they were asked to leave Malaysian government schools. I have also researched parents’ strategies for finding schooling for their children, have visited the different learning centres available to undocumented and stateless children in the city, and have spoken with children who have stopped or never been to school. Given the broader exclusions of statelessness, I am hoping to be able to write about both the possibilities for education to offer a route to personal ‘freedom’, and the constraints on the life-enhancing potential of education in the migrant city of Kota Kinabalu.
However, whilst researching the exclusions and problems that children face, I am also keen to counter the assumption, found in some advocacy work, that stateless or undocumented children are somehow ‘lost’, or lacking an identity. Although many children speak about the boredom of immobility, of being confined to the home because they cannot travel freely, they also have strong family ties and a strong sense of their family’s cultural background. When I gave out ‘holiday diaries’ to a group of Indonesian children, I was struck by how many of them wrote about food-filled visits to a wide range of extended family members in Sabah. Attending Filipino weddings, I have seen Suluk children competently and confidently performing traditional dances to large audiences. Other children record these dances on mobile phones and play them back at later occasions, discussing the merits of different dancers. I have also been reminded of the contingencies of national identity by an 11 year-old boy who, when asked what ethnic group he was from, looked fiercely at me and exclaimed, “I am a person from here!”
Work – particularly that of parents – is a key, emerging theme of my research. Many parents work very long hours, often every day of the week, and children become used to taking care of younger siblings, or to helping parents at their workplace. In my final months of fieldwork, I plan to focus my attention on children’s own work. I will be looking at three main groups, assessing the importance of work, and the relative impact of statelessness or illegality on work experiences and choices. These are: those teenagers who have finished school and are working full-time, those children who combine part-time work with schooling, and those who are working and have had no or little schooling. Such places of work include coffee shops, factories, car washes, and furniture workshops, and promise to yield further insights into the everyday lives of children growing up in a migrant city.
Catherine Allerton, Lecturer in Anthropology at the London School of Economics
[Catherine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]