Back to school for undocumented children in Sabah
UNICEF's Steve Nettleton reports on a UNICEF-supported education centre for undocumented children in Malaysia.
KAMPUNG NUMBAK, Sabah, 1 January 2012 – In a village built above water off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, little feels permanent. As parents seek out irregular work to feed their families, children spend their days exploring alleyways of wooden planks suspended over the South China Sea. Access to education is not something they take for granted since many are without birth registration, although born in Malaysia.
This is now changing, with a ray of hope emerging for many of the undocumented girls and boys in this village, including 11-year old Benhal bin Muljibin. Come the new school year in 2012, Benhal will enrol in Year Six at a special education centre in Kg. Numbak, thanks to a groundbreaking partnership between the community, the Government and UNICEF.
“I like to go to school, to learn, to meet new friends and to get a job, a good life,” says Benhal whose mother and stepfather are refugees from the Philippines. He feels if he couldn’t attend class, he would miss a lifetime of opportunities.
Benhal is not alone. An estimated 44,000 undocumented children don’t attend school in Malaysia, many of them in villages like Kampung Numbak, home to some 8,000 residents, most of them refugees who fled from the Philippines.
“When I saw the children here always swimming and playing I asked myself why these children were not studying, not going to school. When I asked them, they told me they did not have proper and complete documentation,” Kg Numbak village head Habil bin Nasiril reveals.
Habil’s concerns for the children of his village were addressed in 2011 through a multi-partnership initiative that saw the establishment of an education centre, onsite, which teaches the national curriculum, with an early emphasis on reading and writing. UNICEF aims for this school to serve as a model for a broader effort to provide education for other undocumented children across Malaysia.
“By giving them education, especially that they can read, and they can write, and after that they will continue to have skills training,” explains Malaysian Deputy Minister of Education Haji Mohd Puad bin Zarkashi. “So I think this is good for their future. That’s why we are very committed to providing education for them.”
Long term benefits
It is a commitment with long-term benefits. Educating children is seen as the first step towards reducing poverty, reducing disparities and cutting crime. By increasing opportunities for all children, education also boosts the economic capability of the nation at large.
Benhal’s father, Muljibin bin Malariari (68), welcomes the initiative, convinced that his son’s opportunity for an education will help lift the family out of poverty. “I feel grateful that my children have been given a chance at education because that means they will be given opportunities at work."
Proof that with access to schooling and education, undocumented children can become the authors of change for their families, their communities and their new nation.