Jennifer Pak

When 13-year-old Karisma wears a purple school uniform and black hijab, she can easily blend in with other Malaysian students. She was born in Malaysia, but the authorities want her to leave.

Her parents are Filipino immigrants working on construction sites in Lahad Datu town in Sabah - Malaysia’s easternmost state, on the island of Borneo.

Karisma is one of more than 100,000 children in the country who do not have proper documents.

“A few of them have birth certificates but even the ones with birth certificates will not have access to government schooling here,” says Torben Venning, a Danish national who works with children of immigrants in Sabah.

Under Malaysia’s immigration rules, low-skilled foreign workers are not allowed to have families. It’s one of the ways the government tries to limit the number of immigrants.

So Karisma can only get an education through the learning centre set up by Mr Venning and his wife Rosalyn’s charity called PKPKM Sabah. She is four grades behind her Malaysian peers but still seems affectionate towards her birth place. “I love Malaysia. It’s the best country,” says Karisma in fluent Malay, the national language.

Difficult future?

However, there are signs that life is about to get tougher for the children of immigrants. More than a hundred families from the Philippines and Indonesia used to squat in Lobang village near the town centre.

As part of a nationwide campaign to drive illegal immigrants out of Malaysia, the authorities deported many residents who didn’t have documents. Then earlier this year there was a big fire in the village. The blaze destroyed all of the homes. Only broken wooden planks, charred pieces of clothing and plastic bottles remain on the site.

The BBC cannot confirm who set the fire but foreigners who lost their homes in it - like Jahara binti Sangkola, claim it was done deliberately to send a message that they are not welcome here.

However, Ms Jahara says she has nowhere else to go. She fled from fighting in the southern Philippines three decades ago.

Her son Jainol was born in Malaysia but can’t find a job because he says he’s not considered to be a Malaysian.

“It’s difficult for us as Filipinos to go into any business now,” he says.

The government has turned down the BBC’s requests for an interview. But it is stated in the 2011-2015 economic plan that the country is overly reliant on cheap, low-skilled foreign labour and this dependency needs to be “gradually reduced”.

Key sectors

Official statistics show that the number of low-skilled immigrants has more than doubled over the last 15 years to two million. Human rights groups estimate there are two million more staying illegally.

Most of them are trying to escape from poverty or from conflict and come from neighbouring Indonesia, or Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. They work in the key construction, plantation, and manufacturing sectors - jobs shunned by Malaysians.

Economist Yeah Kim Leng says Malaysia’s labour intensive industries have benefited from this influx of foreign labour but echoes the government view that there are long term costs.

“Basically it retards wages especially for low income groups and then importantly it is an incentive for industries to continue hiring cheap labour rather than upgrading their technology or their manufacturing processes to move up the value chain,” he says. Yet businesses are resisting.

Small shop owners tell the BBC they do not have the money to mechanise and very few locals want to take up the jobs. Mr Yeah says the transition will get easier as the economic structure changes under Prime Minister Najib Razak’s transformation programme.

Finding balance

Until then, Mr Yeah says the government has been pragmatic by allowing more foreign workers in when the economy expands, and restricting work visas when there is a downturn.

At the same time, the government needs to weigh the economic gains against public xenophobia. A business owner, who didn’t want her identity revealed, tells the BBC that she relies on foreign workers but does not agree that immigrants and their children should have more rights. “If foreigners have the same rights as us then locals will be pushed out,” she says.

Across town, the PKPKM Sabah charity opens another learning centre for undocumented children. Mark Devilleres, aged 12, stands up to recite the vowels perfectly. Like all children of immigrants he wants more than his father. “When I grow up I want to be a chef in Malaysia,” he says. However, there may be limits to his dreams in this country.–BBC