Taylor’s Case Study: The State of Statelessness in Malaysia

From the inability to travel around the world to people going into unemployment, COVID-19 has presented a lot of problems to many of us. However, a group of people have suffered a lot more and yet remain invisible in the eyes of the government — stateless people.

A stateless person is someone who has no nationality and is not tied to a country. According to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least 10,000 stateless people in West Malaysia alone with unknown numbers in East Malaysia. Stateless people are denied basic rights like education, jobs, and even healthcare as they do not have any form of identification. So when a global emergency happens, like the COVID-19 pandemic, what happens to the stateless person?

Completing her Bachelors, Masters, and later PhD in Law, Dr. Tamara Joan Duraisingam, Senior Lecturer from the Taylor’s Law School, has dedicated most of her career researching statelessness, refugees, and migration in Malaysia. She shares with us her journey of going into this field of research and her expert opinion on how we can help our stateless brothers and sisters.

Q: You’ve written many publications and papers related to statelessness, refugees, and migrations in Malaysia.

What was your inspiration to research it?

A: The beginning seems rather frivolous now when I look back. I’d watched the movie *‘The Terminal’ which features Tom Hanks and thought about how interesting it was that people could lose recognition as a citizen of a state in just a blink of an eye! Then, I began my quest to understand what statelessness meant which unearthed a whole gamut of complex stories about statelessness in Malaysia. 

What seemed like harmless fun research to understand statelessness provided much meaning and purpose in my life. 

*The Terminal is an American comedy film based on a true story about an Eastern European man stuck in the John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal. He was denied entry into the United States due to his invalid passport while being unable to head back to his native country because of a civil war. 

Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the person who inspired the movie, ‘The Terminal’, lived in the Charles de Gaulle International terminal for 18 years because he had lost his papers stating that he was a refugee.

Q: How did your ‘harmless research’ expand to the magnitude of your research now?

A: What started off as an inquiry on the legal concepts featured in Hollywood production got me interested way back in 2008 to begin understanding the concept of statelessness. At that point of time, the concept was almost unheard of. 

Slowly but surely I completed my PhD study in the area of statelessness and helped raise awareness to the plight of stateless persons through talks with colleagues and students as well as through my writings in this area.    


Q: During our first MCO, there were a lot of news on refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia who were treated unfairly and they'd be one of the most exposed groups of people to COVID-19. Could you share your thoughts on this? 

A: During times of crisis, the last in the community will be pushed further back as citizenship comes to the forefront. The sad impact of COVID-19 is that it’s doubled for marginalised societies like the stateless. 

The problem is that there is no legal framework or machinery that provides some short relief for a stateless person in this country. Those who are also ‘illegal immigrants’ eventually get deported. Other stateless communities, such as refugees and undocumented persons, rely on international, regional organisations, NGOs, and civil society to assist them. 

Until there is a clear and feasible legal mechanism in place, it’s the responsibility of all citizens to assist in one way or another, as we're all human beings first, citizens second. If it were reversed, the focus wouldn't be on human rights but citizen rights.

Q: How are you looking to go further into this issue? 

I’ve always been focusing on the international law pertaining to statelessness. It’s time to look at this issue within the context of Constitutional law as well as the social sciences. In other words, it’s time to get my hands dirty.   

Besides, the time has come for local laws to be interpreted in ways that are aligned to the international law on statelessness, even if we aren’t part of the Stateless Persons Convention party. Interpreting the Constitution of Malaysia in a manner that recognises the plight of the stateless person would be the best way forward. 

Just as no man is an island, one could say that no law could be read in isolation from the other disciplines, especially social sciences, when it comes to statelessness. The marriage of law and social sciences will produce quality research for the benefit of any stateless persons.  


Q: Is there anything that you’re working on currently in relation to this area or any areas that you’re thinking of researching on?

A: I’m currently in the process of writing a book on statelessness and hope to complete a series of books on stateless communities at some point.


Q: What are your hopes for the research towards the masses? 

A: I hope that more and more people in Malaysia understand the plight of vulnerable groups in society through my research and assist the stakeholders in resolving the many complex issues that vulnerable communities face. I just want to do what I can for the stateless, refugee, and migrant communities in the way I know best — through teaching and research. 


Q: Speaking of teaching and researching, what led you into academia?

After being called to the Bar, I went into teaching. I think it has got to do with the part-time teaching I had done before and during law school which I enjoyed very much. The joy of being around young people and learning from them is definitely what pushes me.


Q: What touched you during this journey of education and teaching?

A: My students, in their own way, have contributed in making this amazing journey. I’ve always loved hearing their success stories and hope that I’ve contributed to their success in one way or another.

Q: What are some of your favourite memories of your research?

A: Being able to reflect on the life of stateless people and how the law is unable to protect such communities really strikes a chord in my heart. At times it makes me want to give up on such projects as it does cause compassion fatigue but my conscience wouldn't allow me to do that. 

It’s so easy for a researcher to have a hands off approach and I’ve always reminded myself that the research has to go on even though it’s long and hard. Stateless people need us to know about their issues and to care about them.


Q: What are some of the difficulties faced and how did you overcome it?

A: It’s really difficult getting meaningful data on stateless communities. The data hits a saturation point very quickly with no potential recommendations in sight. That can be very difficult to deal with. 


Q: What about some of your milestones?

A: Completing my PhD in the area of international law on stateless persons has indeed been a milestone for me. Writing my first book will be the next one goal. 


Q: Lastly, what's your advice to Malaysians? What can we do to help the stateless communities? 

A: Treat the other as you'd want the other to treat you. This is a universal principle that transcends all religions and should be in the minds of each of us Malaysian citizens at all times and practised when we encounter our stateless brothers or sisters.