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Stateless and Forgotten: The Plight of Sea Nomads and Undocumented Migrants

A Heartbreaking Story

Imagine living your entire life without a nationality, without documentation, and without access to basic rights. This is the reality for the Bajau Laut, a community of stateless sea nomads in Malaysia.

Recently, over 500 Bajau Laut were forcibly evicted from their homes in the Semporna district of Sabah. These people, born without identification documents, find themselves excluded from education, healthcare, and financial services. The crackdown against them highlights a larger issue faced by an estimated one million undocumented migrants and stateless residents in Sabah, making up a third of the state’s population .

The Unseen Struggles

Living on wooden houseboats or huts built on stilts, the Bajau Laut navigate a life filled with uncertainty. Without legal recognition, they live in constant fear of detention and deportation. Malaysia has intensified its efforts against illegal migration, detaining around 45,000 undocumented individuals since May 2020 . Despite these harsh measures, official statistics on the Bajau Laut population are nonexistent, and their centuries-old way of life is under threat.

The recent evictions, conducted by an unidentified enforcement task force, involved burning and demolishing homes, leaving these communities in despair. Videos shared by Borneo Komrad, a Sabah-based social advocacy group, depict the brutal reality of these operations: structures burning offshore and men in uniform smashing wooden huts .

The Data We Don't Talk About

While the plight of stateless residents and undocumented migrants is often highlighted, some critical statistics remain under-discussed. For instance, the estimated one million undocumented migrants in Sabah represent a significant portion of the state's workforce, contributing to its economy yet receiving no recognition or protection. Additionally, the lack of birth registration leads to a cycle of statelessness, where children born in these communities inherit the same lack of rights as their parents.

Gebirah’s Digital ID Empowerment Project

Gebirah, a Singapore-based humanitarian organization dedicated to addressing such critical issues, is in partnership with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, to pioneer a digital ID solution to empower stateless and undocumented individuals. This innovative project aims to provide secure digital identities, enabling refugees and undocumented migrants to access essential services from NGOs, governments, and donors.

Digital IDs can transform lives by ensuring that individuals like the Bajau Laut are no longer invisible. These IDs can help them access education, healthcare, and financial services, and provide them with a sense of identity and security. For governments and humanitarian organizations like UNHCR, digital IDs offer a reliable way to manage and support these vulnerable populations efficiently.

A Call to Action

By leveraging technology, we can bridge the gap between these communities and the services they desperately need. We invite the UNHCR, governments, and NGOs to collaborate with us in implementing this groundbreaking solution. Together, we can make a profound impact, ensuring that no one is left behind.


The story of the Bajau Laut is a stark reminder of the urgent need for inclusive solutions to address statelessness and undocumented migration. Through innovative projects like Gebirah’s digital ID empowerment, we have the opportunity to make a lasting difference. We invite partners, collaborators, and volunteers who share our vision to join us in this mission. Together, we can turn the tide and provide hope for those who need it most.

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