It has only been just over a month since the successful conclusion of the inaugural Malaysian Youth Network on Statelessness 2017 (MYCS 2017) and our tired team cannot help but look back in thankfulness to where our story first began.
In December 2015, UNHCR launched their “I am Here, I Belong” campaign on statelessness in the city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A group of young people attended this launch, as yet unaware of what statelessness was and how severe this invisible issue was. We were a part of that group. Our awakening was sudden yet profound. Not a soul among us remained unaffected when confronted with the grim reality of statelessness in Malaysia and the world at large. In fact, we were so moved by what we had learned that we brought our newfound knowledge back to our university and immediately began brainstorming ways to raise awareness among our peers. It suddenly seemed vital to us that we get more people talking about what had so long remained hidden on the fringe of society.
It was at this crucial moment that the seed of MYCS 2017 was planted. Its first shoots took the form of an initiative known as Journey to Belong: An Awareness Campaign on Statelessness that ran from January 2016 until August 2016. Efforts under this campaign included a social media awareness project; the revamping of a statelessness education toolkit for young school children; informative sessions and inclusive dialogues targeted at further increasing awareness of the issue; photography and video exhibitions on statelessness; and most significantly, a youth summit that gathered young leaders to discuss possible methods of addressing and ultimately resolving statelessness in Malaysia.
As you might imagine, this youth summit was but the beginning of bigger things to come yet was in itself, no meagre feat. It brought together 32 youth leaders selected from 9 different organisations to participate in a roundtable on the issue of statelessness. It aimed to create and encourage dialogue regarding the issue so that it would remain invisible no longer. In addition, we found it necessary to clearly define the role that the youth of the country must play in order to achieve the common goal of accelerating the end of statelessness in Malaysia. The summit culminated in a spirited consensus of all involved to contributing towards, sustaining, and advancing the growth of national cooperation, mobilization, and coordination between UNHCR, civil society, academics, and the government in the interest of resolving statelessness in Malaysia. It was agreed by all that our approach to the issue would be structured around four key components i.e. capacity building, to research and further understand statelessness; informed advocacy, to raise awareness and encourage public discourse regarding the matter; social inclusion, to mobilize the stateless community and empower them to be a part of the solution; and lastly, legal and policy development, to reduce and prevent statelessness altogether.
The seed had been planted in the fertile soil of youthful minds. The shoots were already breaking through new ground and the roots were firmly set within the steadying anchor of the agreed upon key components. It was time for the first fruits to show. Enter MYCS 2017.
Having already seen the success of the youth summit, MYCS 2017 grew from this firm base and invited applicants from all around the country to be a part of the dialogue to further revise and improve the recommendations put forward during the 2016 Youth Summit. The focus here would be on feasibility and practical implementation strategies. As its predecessor, the congress also aimed to promote a comprehensive understanding of statelessness in both Malaysian and global contexts among the youth that would form the delegation.
We agreed that the first plenary session of the congress must involve introducing our chosen delegates to UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign, the spark that had started it all. Who better to run the session than those who had first inspired us all that time ago? UNHCR was our natural choice and they did what they did best: educate. Our delegates, regardless of background and degree of familiarity with the issue, were given the same quick overview of statelessness and its many facets i.e. how one can be at risk of statelessness, how one becomes stateless, the consequences of being stateless, the stateless community in Malaysia and the challenges involved in the fight to eradicate statelessness. UNHCR also touched on the 1954 Convention on Statelessness to ensure all delegates started the congress off on the same page.
As MYCS 2017 progressed, it quickly dawned on us that something amazing was happening in that modest conference room. We were witnessing the kind of fruitful, respectful sharing so desperately needed when tackling so Herculean a task as eradicating statelessness. Our delegates were meeting with caseworkers, paralegals, members of the stateless community, and former stateless persons, some of whom were delegates themselves. It was heartening to see the same fire we experienced at the campaign launch in 2015 kindle in the delegates eyes as they gained further insight into the reality of living as a stateless person, the nuances of the challenges faced by the stateless communities in East Malaysia as well as Peninsular Malaysia. From bright eyed young children informing us that they wished only for the opportunity of an education to proud old grandmothers who told us their stories of living with statelessness, the issue was quickly becoming human and personal to all of us attending the congress.
With the spark ignited, we kept the torch burning with multiple Focus Group Discussions wherein the delegates were divided into their groups of choice, each group tasked with focusing on one of the four key components previously established during the 2016 Youth Summit. Our team explained each key component in greater detail and facilitated discussion among the delegates as they worked to identify ways to share their networks, resources, and ideas among their respective key component groups in the interest of kickstarting the Malaysian Youth Network on Statelessness. Our team threw multiple creative challenges at the delegates, hoping to gauge how well they worked together and the ways in which they could think outside the box when looking at such a somber issue. The highly caffeinated delegates blew our expectations out of the water, pitching their views of statelessness through poetry, skits, radio shows, and even charades. They also came up with various mind maps tackling appreciative inquiries and stakeholder mapping.
We agreed that the conference was going even better than we had dared to hope but even good things must come to an end. After two days of intense discussion, two years of snowballing effort, and too many cups of coffee to count, MYCS 2017 concluded with the delegates sharing solid 3 month plans for each of their respective Key Component Groups. Our team was unanimously christened the Bottom Lining Team and we gladly took on the role of facilitating the cooperative efforts between the four groups as well the presentation and refining of their action plans.
What comes next? The next chapter of this story must of course be the establishment and operation of the Malaysian Youth Network on Statelessness proper. As we continue the long march, we look forward to engaging even more young Malaysians in the journey of eradicating statelessness. While our network holds immense potential in this regard, we cannot fail to recognise that we have quite a way to go and many challenges to navigate before we can truly begin to see significant impact. Which is why our sleeves are rolled up, our torches are held high, and the effort must go on.