Illegal immigration issue more pressing than ever

Large population of undocumented people poses security threat to Sabah

If there is anything that any Sabahan wants, it is a solution to the never-ending problem of illegal immigrants.

But the consensus ends there. Every solution or measure put on the table by federal or state governments over the years has ended in fierce political debates and objections with little signs of unanimity towards a single proposal to resolve it.

Objective and realistic solutions are often thrown out by political powers pandering to the electoral gallery, leaving the issue often dubbed as the “mother of all Sabah problems” to fester over the last five decades.

The problem is no longer just a case of rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants.

It has evolved from security concern to serious socio-economic quandary that has become impossible to resolve with a single stroke of a pen.

At hand in Sabah are thousands of refugees who fled the southern Philippines during the civil war in the early 1970s.

They remain in the state with their families spanning nearly three to four generations holding IMM13 (Immigration Stay Pass) despite peace returning to their home country in the 1990s.

Adding to their numbers was uncontrolled entry of economic migrants from Philippines and Indonesia since the 1980s to present day, with many of the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren making Sabah their home with little or no link to their homeland.

Compounding further to Sabah’s migrant quagmire is that many of them have intermarried with locals today.

There could be hundreds, if not thousands, of cases across Sabah where children from such unions remain undocumented because of lack of marriage certificates or being abandoned by either parent.

In 2002, Putrajaya and Manila came to a major diplomatic spat when one of the deportees turned out to be a Malaysian.

The 14-year-old street child, who was arrested with no documents in Kota Kinabalu, was found to be the daughter of a Malaysian father from a relationship with a Filipino woman who did not have any travel documents.

The girl, who was called Angelica, was returned to Malaysia, ending the diplomatic row and also an all-out campaign to rid Sabah of illegal immigrants by then chief minister Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat.

The crackdown highlighted that the problem is complex and there are no simplistic solutions.

A 2014 Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) report on Sabah’s migrant issue showed accounts of foreigners admitting to obtaining genuine Malaysian identity cards (MyKads) with the use of false personal particulars.

Their number is also not known but many have assimilated as Sabahans, which has triggered calls by local political parties for the issuance of Sabah identity cards (IC), weeding out those who obtained genuine citizenship through backdoor means.

Successive state governments – Sabah Barisan Nasional (1994-2018), Warisan Plus (2018-2020) and the current Gabungan Rakyat Sabah-Barisan (GRS-Barisan) – have yet to seriously consider the Sabah IC and it remains on the back burner.

The RCI report also recommended for the Sabah Resident Pass to be issued to the thousands of migrants in the state.

The reasoning was that many who have become stateless would not be easily accepted by their country of origin.

Proponents of registering these people believe the move will also help meet Sabah’s labour intensive agriculture and construction sector needs while in the long-term, solutions are put in place to resolve their stateless issue in a humanitarian way.

However, the suggestion itself is a hot button issue.

Sabah’s political elites shot down the idea when the federal government under Pakatan Harapan (2018-2020) proposed the issuance of Sabah Temporary Pass (PSS) during the Warisan Plus state government, forcing them to abandon it amid strong objections from the then Opposition.

Again, a similar federal proposal under renamed Special Foreigners Pass, was shot down by state-led GRS-Barisan, many of whom were in the Opposition when they went against the PSS.

On one hand, Sabah’s political elite fear that the stateless will become citizens, further changing the demographics of a multi-ethnic Sabah, as happened in the 1990s when foreigners allegedly obtained MyKads.

On the other hand, there is an urgent need to find a solution to the complex problem of migrants in Sabah.

After shooting down the Home Ministry’s latest Foreigner Card proposal, Sabah Cabinet has appointed Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan to be point man and come up with proposals to solve the migrant issue.

In the months ahead, Kitingan is expected to come out with a realistic solution agreeable not only by political parties backing the government of the day, but also the Opposition who needs to be convinced.

The number of migrants – legal and illegal – has been estimated from as low as 150,000 to as high as a million.

At a recent Sabah Legislative Assembly sitting, Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor said foreigners made up 23.7% or 810,433 of Sabah’s 3,418,785, based on the initial 2020 population and housing census report.

Whatever their numbers, a pragmatic solution is needed for these stateless people, who in many ways have weaved into the very fabric of Sabah’s society.

Regularisation, registration exercises as well as deportation of thousands of illegal immigrants have been carried out by authorities over the past two to three decades, with none of it showing lasting effect.

Many deportees find their way back to Sabah whose east coast sea borders are a short boat ride away from the southern Philippines Tawi Tawi chain of islands.

It is more pressing now especially with elements of foreign criminals and even terrorists blending into these stateless communities, exposing Sabah to greater security threats.

Politicising the issue with no real solutions will eventually make Sabah vulnerable to a range of geo-political and security issues.

But the irony lies in the fact that you need political will to solve it.

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