KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — Filipino workers are still very much needed in this labor-strapped East Malaysian state despite the ongoing massive crackdown on illegal migrants here that has seen the deportation of close to 6,000 Filipinos since February.
At least 3,000 more Filipinos, who have sneaked into Sabah, mostly from Western Minda—nao, are expected to be sent home in the following months.
Indonesians and Bangladeshis are also affected by the crackdown on illegal aliens in Malaysia.
Close to 500,000 Filipinos are reportedly in East Malaysia. Most of them had come here without proper documents and aboard pumpboats that had sailed from either Tawi-Tawi or Sulu to any of Malaysia’s border islands.
"We need these Filipino workers. But we want these laborers to come in legally. We need them in our agricultural plantations, in our timber industry and even in our construction sector," said Datu Thomas Lau Chi Keong, deputy president of the Sandakan Municipal Council.
He said Filipinos wanting to work in Malaysia should first comply with the documentary requirements so their rights could be amply protected.
"We are in a certain phase in our development where much work has to be done in the various projects that we have included in our five-year plan," said Lau, whose position is equivalent to a Filipino vice mayor.
He told The STAR that despite the existing need for foreign labor, the ongoing crackdown by the state and federal government would continue.
Beside the random arrests and deportation of illegal aliens, authorities have also demolished their shanties in various kampung air (water villages) here.
Lau said the shanties have to be dismantled to give way to several projects, including the development of a new waterfront township in Sandakan and in other areas in East Malaysia.
Last April 3, 850 Filipino deportees arrived at the Zamboanga City port. This was followed by another batch of 100 Filipinos two days after. All deportees arrived aboard the M/V Lady Mary Joy of the Aleson Shipping Corp. that regularly plies the Zamboanga-Sandakan route.
Ricaredo Reyes, regional immigration chief, said the Philippine government shoulders the cost of deportation – about P600 (half the regular fare) per deportee.
A Philippine consular official was assigned here to facilitate the deportation of the Filipino migrants, who include women and children.
John Lu, manager of Aleson Shipping Corp., told The STAR the deportees are usually hauled off to the vessel’s cargo section and are only allowed to go up to the economy section after the boat is safely out of Malaysian waters.
"We have strict instructions from the Malaysian authorities that the deportees are only be taken out of the cargo section at the bottom of the ship if it has already sailed away from the port. This is to avoid instances of these deportees jumping off the boat so they could not be brought back home to the Philippines," Lu said.
KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia (AFP) — Eighteen-year-old Celby prowls a busy street in Kota Kinabalu, hawking contraband cigarettes to the drivers of passing vehicles and cars parked at the sidewalk.
For several years now, the Filipino has made a living as an itinerant street vendor, selling smuggled goods which he says are brought in from the nearby international offshore financial island of Labuan.
"My parents are corn farmers in Zamboanga but life has been difficult, so we came to Sabah five years ago. Life is good here. It is easy for us to make money if we are hard-working," he said.
Celby is among hundreds of thousands of Filipino refugees and economic migrants who have settled in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island to escape the hardship of the southern Philippines, which is just a few hours away by boat.
But the teenager has no valid permit to stay in Sabah and – along with many others – has been on the run since Feb. 26, when the state began one of its biggest sweeps against illegal immigrants in decades.
In the past two weeks, armed security personnel have bulldozed hundreds of immigrant colonies throughout the state and demolished thousands of rickety wooden houses built on stilts over shallow waters.
More than 7,000 Filipinos have been deported from Sabah this year, with some 3,000 to be sent home in the next few days.
Officials say there are an estimated 100,000-150,000 illegals among some 600,000 immigrants in Sabah, but thousands of Filipinos slip into the state undetected each year.
There is also a permanent community of migrant Filipinos who have acquired Malaysian citizenship since the exodus began in the 1970s, when Mindanao island was wracked by a bloody separatist rebellion which has yet to be fully resolved despite peace efforts by Manila.
The growing immigrant population is a dilemma for Sabah. The state blames the illegals for social problems such as a rising crime rate and the spread of diseases but also uses them as a source of much-needed cheap labor.
There is an estimated one Filipino to five Malaysians in the state and authorities are worried that Filipinos may one day outnumber the locals.
A slowing economy and security fears after Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, and kidnappings by Filipino Muslim rebels from Malaysian resort islands in 2000, gave impetus to Sabah’s renewed crackdown.
But some officials say it provides only temporary relief and there can be no real end to the problem until peace is found in Mindanao.
"To solve the immigrant problem in Sabah, we must get to the root of the problem, which is the conflict going on in southern Philippines," said Yong Teck Lee, a former Sabah chief minister.
"This demands a peaceful solution, a political settlement and a massive rehabilitation exercise including land reforms. Principally, the ball is in the court of the Philippines government," Young said.
Apart from occasional joint patrols, Yong said there has been little cooperation between Malaysia and the Philippines to tackle the issue.
Manila’s territorial claim to Sabah – dating back to the pre-independence days of a sultanate spanning both countries – is a stumbling block because Manila refuses to open a consulate in the state to issue Sabah-based Filipinos with necessary documents.
"They feel they can’t have a consulate in their own country," Yong said of Manila’s claim.
Many Filipinos have also been given fake or stolen identity cards by local politicians so they can vote in elections, further complicating the authorities’ task to ferret out the illegals.
More than 75,000 identity cards were reported lost in the state between 1997 and 2001, officials said.