The Invisible Women and Children of Malaysia: The Vulnerability of Stateless Persons to Terrorism and Violent Extremism

Stateless children at a night market in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Credit: Reuters

Women and Children in Terrorism: A Four-Part Analysis (Part 3: Case Study of Malaysia)


The complex reality and volatile nature of terrorism and violent extremism (VE) transcends borders in today’s global village. Globally connected, terrorism continues to become more sophisticated, more indiscriminate and more lethal. Since terrorist and violent extremist groups tend to flourish in marginalized areas, using local grievances to recruit young citizens in vulnerable life situations, suffering, for instance, from varying degrees of unemployment, low education and literacy levels, no sector in today’s world is at greater risk and remains severely understudied as the stateless women and children targeted for recruitment and radicalization by terrorist organizations.

Due to the historically unstable political, social, and economic conditions in Southern Philippines, further aggravated in the last five decades by the pervasive presence of the CPP-NPA communist-terrorist network that relentlessly attacks and exploits the vulnerabilities of the Muslim-majority ethnic groups or indigenous peoples (IPs), hundreds of thousands of Muslim Filipinos have sought a relatively more peaceful life for Muslims in Sabah, Malaysia — albeit not all through legal immigration. Presently, there are at least 10,000 people in West Malaysia alone who are denied nationality, with unknown numbers of stateless persons in East Malaysia, which includes Sabah. Contrary to the stateless populations in West Malaysia, the circumstances in East Malaysia, especially concerning the mixed migratory context in Sabah, is more difficult to establish and efforts to operationalize a programme had been generally considered more complex, compounded by the fact that UNHCR has not had an office in Sabah since the 1980s. Hannah Arendt saw “statelessness” as the most primary deprivation of all: the loss of a place in this world, a loss that renders opinions insignificant and actions ineffective. In becoming stateless, persons are additionally robbed of the only entity that could guarantee a set of minimum rights, rendering them extremely vulnerable to any kind of abuse and deprivation, since they have no legal status either in their own countries or abroad. Psychologically, “impotence breeds violence,” while politically, “loss of power becomes a temptation to substitute violence for power.”

East Malaysia: A Prime Location for Both Terrorists and Stateless Persons from the Philippines

Based on a 2017 Manila Times report on the Marawi Siege, Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) and their child soldier recruits seeking to enter southern Philippines in order to join Islamic State-affiliated groups find Sabah to be the safest route as an entry point to the porous borders of Mindanao, Philippines. According to Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst and lecturer at Indonesia’s Jenderal Achmad Yani University, “The porous Indonesia-Malaysia border and more importantly the stronger connection between Sabah and Mindanao since both shared some close roots as they used to be part of the Sultanate of Sulu in southern Philippines, make Sabah the easy choice.”

“There have already been a lot of movements traditionally of people between Sabah and Mindanao, and the terrorists are just utilizing that network. Remember the fact that the Malaysian government was caught completely off guard a few years ago when a bunch of people affiliated with the Sultanate of Sulu infiltrated Sabah,” Yohanes said, referring to the bloody 2013 Lahad Datu siege by Sulu militants, calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” out to stake their ancestral territorial claim over part of Sabah.

Sabah, Sarawak dan Labuanor Malaysian Borneo is the part of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, the world’s third largest island. It consists of the Malaysian states of Sabah, which is closer to the Philippines than to mainland Malaysia, Sarawak in the west, and the Federal Territory of Labuan. Coming from the islands of Jolo, Sulu or the Zamboanga Peninsula, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) terrorists from the Philippines openly boast how they can easily reach Sabah in approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with their high-powered speedboats; with even less time required if they come from Tawi-Tawi, which is only 273 miles from Sabah. Filipino, Malaysian, and Indonesian fishermen are all accustomed to traversing the dangerous waters of the Celebes and Sulu Seas within 24 hours using regular motorboats.

One thing immediately common to members of terrorist organizations and stateless persons is how they both evade documentation in fear of detention or arrests; and how they know the best escape routes and hiding places to avoid monitoring and surveillance. Given the proximity of Sabah to Mindanao, stateless persons, many of whom are of Muslim Filipino descent, born in East Malaysia but generally with no birth certificate or any government I.D., make perfect targets for recruitment and radicalization by ISIS who offer not only a sense of “collective belonging” but also provide a means for stateless persons to earn a substantial income despite their lack of education. While no ISIS-affiliated attacks were carried out in 2019, Malaysia remains as a source of children and youth targets for ISIS recruitment, as well as a transit point and hub for kidnap-for-ransom activities perpetrated by other terrorist networks.

In Malaysia, the law does not guarantee the right to education for irregular migrant children or stateless children, and thus, they would continuously be denied this right so long as they remain in Malaysia illegally. Stateless persons residing in Malaysia, regardless of country of origin, may legally be refused or denied access to education, jobs or healthcare.

The problem of stateless persons in East Malaysia reflects the imperative for Philippines and Malaysia to work collaboratively to resolve this complex human rights issue. It was a humbling experience for Filipino researchers from Mindanao to interview face to face some of these undocumented persons of Filipino descent who preferred to remain stateless for as long as they could continue to live and work in Sabah. This bleak reality speaks volumes in terms of the intergenerational failure of the Philippine government to make a vast number of Muslim Filipinos feel that they “collectively belong” in their own homeland.

Mabuti pa na undocumented kami dito sa Sabah kaysa umuwi sa Zamboanga sa Mindanao kay mahirap ang buhay sa Pinas pag Muslim ka, mas OK pa ang buhay ng mga tulisang NPA sa Mindanao, pero pag Muslim ka, hindi maganda ang trato ng gobyerno. Dito sa Sabah, kahit papaano, mas maganda pa rin ang buhay namin bilang mga Muslim.” (‘It’s better for me and my children to be stateless here in Sabah, than for us to go back to Zamboanga in Mindanao where Muslims are discriminated against. NPA terrorists have even more rights in the Philippines than us Muslims. Here (in Sabah), even with no legal documentation, Muslims have a better life under the Malaysian government.’) – Fatimih Husin, an illegal immigrant, and a mother of 5 undocumented children of Filipino descent.

Additionally, the total population of foreign workers in Malaysia at the end of 2017 was estimated at 2.96–3.26 million. Of these, an estimated 1.23–1.46 million are irregular foreign workers, a much lower and narrower range than the estimated 1.9–4.6million reported by other sources. The security threat assessment and analysis on how many stateless women and children in Malaysia are susceptible to VE recruitment and radicalization is complex and subject to large margins of error because data on irregular foreign workers and stateless persons based in Malaysia are relatively scarce, and much of the data that are collected are not shared among key stakeholders.

Officially, there are between one and two million undocumented or irregular migrants in Malaysia and among them, it is estimated about 44,000 children who were born from irregular migrant parents were denied schooling. In 2016, the former Home Minister of Malaysia, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi estimated that there were around 290,000 stateless children in the country. According to another intelligence source in Sabah, an advocate for stateless persons, as of 2017 there were more than 400,000 stateless children of Muslim Filipino descent, who have either undocumented or stateless parents working in the low-paying informal sector in Sabah. Being rendered stateless from birth significantly affects the intellectual development of these children which makes it much harder for them to grow up as productive and law-abiding adults. The exact number of stateless individuals remains unclear given the nature of the problem. Contrary to popular belief, many people who are stateless in Malaysia are not foreigners, refugees or “illegal migrants”; many of them were actually born in the country and have been living in Malaysia most of their lives, according to local media reports.

Way Forward: Bilateral Programmes and More Female Representations

Undocumented and stateless persons are ideal terrorist recruits for ISIS since they have no public records: no birth certificates, no passports, and no real identification cards. In this day and age wherein terrorism transcends borders, ‘statelessness’ no longer exclusively disenfranchises the stateless persons, the illegal migrants and refugees who are rendered “superfluous” — unwanted and unseen — by contemporary politics, but ordinary citizens too, whose security, civil liberties, and rights to life and property are equally exposed to the threat of domestic terrorist attacks that may be carried out by stateless actors in the near future.

On the aspect of reducing risks related to terrorism and counterterrorism, Lucia Zedner aptly points out, “Add to this the risk of marginalizing and alienating those we target and we arrive at the paradoxical situation that counterterrorism policies may make further attack more, not less, likely. So we need to consider what risks are really at stake when we seek to counter terrorist risk.”

While stateless persons, especially the undocumented women and children based in East Malaysia, are more at risk to terrorism and VE, it is nonetheless clear that ISIS has also deployed a relatively sophisticated and modestly successful recruitment strategy that targets Malaysian youth, particularly those enrolled in institutions of higher learning in Peninsular Malaysia; as well as the online recruitment of vulnerable Malaysian women seeking to take part in “female Jihad” by supporting their male relatives, educating their children in the radical ideology they have embraced, and facilitating terrorist operations. In light of these developments, the Middle East Institute also suggests that, “It is urgently necessary for the Malaysian government, university officials and others to join forces in continuing to develop and refine an array of counter-recruitment measures.”

The status of the Muslim stateless persons in Malaysia reflect the status of Muslim youth in France. According to one narrative, when the Muslims migrated to France, they battled poverty in the grim housing estates outside big cities. These youth are locked in a closed cycle of poverty, crime, and lack of opportunities. In the mid-2000s, these youth rose up to make their grievances known. They now press for a fair chance at graduating from school, having a good job, and living in peaceful communities. The cycle of poverty and rioting continues until their demands are accepted.

Bilateral programs promoted by Malaysia and the Philippines can help promote the safety of children as laid out in the Sustainable Development Agenda as a strategic precondition of global development. For example, bilateral projects to address stateless youth can specifically address Target 16.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations General Assembly resolution 70/1), which calls for putting an end to all forms of violence against children, including the abuse and exploitation of and trafficking in children. These programs could highlight the crucial role played by children in the creation of peace, justice and robust institutions.

Any successful counterterrorism programme should address both the motivation and the operational capabilities of a terrorist organization. There is an essential need, therefore, for the Malaysian security forces to expand their capabilities to look more carefully at the role of women and children in terrorist organizations. By and large, more female experts in the field of terrorism studies and in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) need to be closely involved as leaders of interagency partners to explore options for this policy area going forward.

Part 1: A More Effective Counterterrorism Strategy for Indonesian Women by Acknowledging Their Motivations and Tactical Contributions

Part 2: Striving for Peace in the Philippines amidst Increased Combat-readiness and Continued Recruitment of Women and Children

Part 4: The Shape of Contemporary Conflict in Southeast Asia: How Violent Extremism has Changed Our Women and Children

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Drei Toledo is a Countering Violent Extremism specialist. She researches on ISIS Foreign Terrorist Fighters and their families.

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