By Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah Rahmat
Stateless children or undocumented children is a long-standing issue worldwide. In recent years, the trend of stateless children has shown to be increasing.
According to UNHCR, it is a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law. In simpler words, stateless children are invisible and vulnerable. A child can be stateless for many reasons.
In Malaysia, children became stateless mostly because the birth was not registered by the parents, they were abandoned by their parents, or they were born overseas to a foreign father (only their mother holds citizenship).
In 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs reported statistics of 300,000 stateless children in our country, with 20 per cent of them without a birth certificate.
Formal identification document
Stateless children need to own a formal identification document (ID) to be “visible and recognized”. Without an ID, they cannot claim any rights or enjoy any benefit in the country they live in. Stateless children can be denied access to subsidised healthcare, formal education, and other governmental aid.
As they grow older, they have no opportunities to enrol in higher education, for legal employment, for voting rights or to move freely. Moreover, these children are vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation. For example, stateless children have been subjected to forced labour, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking.
In Malaysia, a citizen holds a formal ID known as an identity card (IC) issued by the Department of National Registration (JPN). Stateless children have to undergo a certain procedure that was imposed by JPN in order to obtain a similar verified ID.
One of the steps to obtaining a formal ID is to verify the age of a child. This is the step in which a forensic dentist will be involved.
A forensic dentist is responsible for providing an estimated age to a stateless child referred to them by the Department of Social Welfare or the Police Department under a court order. Forensic dentists will calculate the correct age of these stateless children before sending it to the court.
A forensic dentist who is approached by one of these enforcement authorities has to give a justified age for a stateless child. Dental age can be calculated based on the teeth development of a child using an established age estimation method.
The teeth will be assessed thoroughly based on a dental x-ray such as a dental panoramic radiograph. In Malaysia, we follow population-specific data when performing an age estimation of a child.
Dental age is used because it is the biological age that is most closely related to our actual age. Unlike the skeleton, the development of teeth is barely affected by our diet, socioeconomic or environmental factors. Surprisingly, many people in our society are not aware of this and think there is no chance for stateless children to have an accurate birth date.
This issue has to be raised as stateless children are helpless without help from adults to get themselves documented. Just think how many talents this country will be wasted if the stateless children in Malaysia are abandoned.
Hence, it is important for society to know that there is a way for stateless children to be “seen”. Stateless children also deserve to be granted a birth date.
Remember that children are the future of our country. So, it is crucial to give them an opportunity to grow in a healthy and encouraging environment with sufficient basic needs and support from the Government.
In conjunction with World Children’s Day, let’s hope that every stateless child will get a chance to celebrate their birthday.
Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah Rahmat is a Lecturer and Forensic Odontologist Specialist with the Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya.