Good Tidings, Comfort & Joy?

Thousands of refugees in South-east Asia face a gloomy Christmas and New Year period.

Luke Hunt


When tucking into Christmas dinner this year, spare a thought for the world’s least wanted, and under-reported on.

In a cheerio note to the Southern Philippines and Indonesia, the Malaysians have announced the deportation of almost 12,000 unwanted illegal immigrants from Sabah on the East Malaysian island of Borneo. Kuala Lumpur is well within its rights, but there are many concerns.

Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister's Department Nasrun Mansur said that 8,510 Philippine nationals and 2,810 Indonesians were sent packing in a crackdown on illegal immigrants, including those who fled the civil war in Mindanao, over the past year.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants occupy squatter camps and water villages around the northern tip of Borneo. Their sheer numbers make recent arrivals of asylum seekers in Australia’s western waters look pitifully small,although they are just as unpopular.

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In Malaysia, developers loath illegal migrants, the rising local middle classes view their kampongs as an eyesore and the authorities see them as a scapegoat for local crime. Others, normally driven by greed, appreciate them solely as a cheap source of labour.

It’s also a problem the United Nations, which established many of the camps but proved incapable of dealing with their incredible growth in recent years, would like others not to notice.

The most prominent villages lie on prime real estate, Palau Gaya, near the heart of the state capital Kota Kinabalu. Here, more than 10,000 refugees and illegal immigrants have stood between developers and the pristine island for decades, frustrating the Sabah government and locals who get irritated by excuses – like civil war – for justifying the existence of the dilapidated shacks.

Lying just a mile from Kota Kinabalu’s waterfront and on the very edge of the island, the villages have become home to the poorest of the poor who fled the decades of fighting in the Southern Philippines where separatists are demanding a Moro Islamic homeland.

There’s no sewage system and clean water is ferried in by boat. In fairness to the authorities,there are genuine fears the kampongs are home to smugglers and criminals wanted in other parts. Previous efforts to move them have failed, but the Mayor of Kota Kinabalu has announced plans to further reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the state by shifting these squatters by 2015.

The move is seen as timely given renewed efforts to broker a peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) following the recent election of Benigno Aquino as president in the Philippines. But human rights workers in Malaysia say to succeed, peace talks must also address the needs of refugees as many have become stateless during the last 35 years that they’ve been here.

There are second, third and fourth generations living on the island who don’t have any form of identity or knowledge of the Philippines. They see themselves as Sabahan or Malaysian as opposed to Filipino. 

The greatest irony, however, is that many of these villagers have acted as a kind of warden to the island, protecting the rare and endangered species in a way profit-orientated developers never will. Rainforests that envelope the island remain in pristine condition.

This is partly because they are inhabited by wild boars, seen as an anathema to the Muslims who populate the villages. As such,they guard its perimeter and anything else – such as hunting or clearing – is off limits, according to local lore. The villagers of Palau Gaya see the island as non-halal.

Now the prospect of peace in Mindanao has emboldened the authorities, offering good tidings for local businessmen and the prospect of an unbridled tourist development,but it has offered little in comfort or joy for those who have nowhere to go in the face of further forced repatriations.

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Luke Hunt
Contributing Author

Luke Hunt

Luke Hunt is a South-east Asia correspondent for The Diplomat and has worked in journalism for more than 25 years.

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