Stateless Sea Guardians sinking under Covid-19, with few lifelines

Bajau Laut children play on a bridge at a village in Sabah. Many live on houseboats and isolated stilt villages along Sabah’s remote shores. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: Sabah, called the Land Below the Wind because it is not plagued by typhoons, is home to a seafaring people now being battered in their coastal villages by the Covid-19 cyclone.

The Bajau Laut, known as the Guardians of the Sea, have been roaming the seas of Southeast Asia, fishing and trading for more than 1,000 years.

Traditionally they are citizens of no country but over recent centuries many Bajau Laut or Sama-Bajau as they call themselves, have settled on land. However they tend not to drift far from the sea and most still make their living from the waters.

Many still live on houseboats, while still more live in isolated stilt villages along remote Sabah shores, away from the centres of population, usually quite forgotten by the nation.

They live in Malaysia, but most are not Malaysian as far as the authorities are concerned.

And now, caught in the storm surge of Covid-19, these proudly independent maritime navigators find themselves cut off from their normal livelihoods, and with little access to the vital help they need to grapple with the new scourge and the debilitating effects of measures taken to bring it under control.

Mukmin Nantang (sitting) from Borneo Comrade traveling by boat to reach the Bajau Laut during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Most of the men are usually fishermen, fish suppliers and labourers who earn on a daily basis. In the emergency they are suffering an ongoing loss of income.

As their money has dwindled, food has become precious and many villages are far from roads, making it difficult for them to get supplies from charity organisations especially in the first two strict lockdown phases of the movement control order (MCO).

Their problems are multiplied by being officially denied access to Malaysian healthcare, jobs and schools.

When it comes to education for their children, they depend on alternative learning centres and schools run by NGOs.

Mukmin Nantang, of NGO Borneo Komrad, runs such an alternative school but it has been forced to close because of the movement control orders.

Students are expected to continue their learning online but many don’t have phones or internet access.

Mukmin’s school is planning at-home sessions, and vocational classes for limited numbers of students at their centre in Semporna, Sabah. It remains to be seen if and how these will go ahead.

The lack of access to the internet also hinders their parents from getting basic facts about the disease as well as advice about what they should do to keep their vulnerable communities safe.

“The Bajau Laut have difficulty getting any information about the pandemic,” Mukmin told FMT.

“When we visit them, they don’t understand what’s happening. They just know that there’s a virus and they must not leave their homes. But information on how to care for their safety and health, they mostly do not know.”

Maalini Ramalo says the Bajau Laut are often discriminated against by their employers, and are also left out from the government’s stimulus packages.

Many of them are fearful of seeking treatment at government clinics or hospitals, in case they are detained over their lack of citizenship.

“Some have been to doctors but others are too scared to leave their houses to check on their health,” said Mukmin.

Maalini Ramalo, of Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (DHRRA), told FMT that as their traditional sources of income have dried up, many are left with no option but to take up land-based menial jobs.

She claimed that the Bajau Laut are often discriminated against by their employers.

“Either they’re paid less than they deserve, or some employers often refuse to pay them at all knowing they can’t report it to the police because they don’t have citizenship or blue IC cards.”

She said they are not entitled to financial assistance under the Prihatin Rakyat economic stimulus package.

“Many tell us they can’t feed their family. For them, it’s not about losing business. It’s as basic as how can they put a meal on their family table.”

She is concerned they are not entitled to any help even though many were actually impoverished before the movement restrictions began.

Maalini also said that many cannot pay the expensive healthcare charges levied on non-citizens. And that problem extends beyond Covid-19 fears.

“With no income during the pandemic, they avoid going to the clinic to get treated for their other health issues,” she said.

“We receive calls from them saying their children have high fevers but they can’t go to the clinic or hospital because they fear they might be detained as a family.”

There have been efforts by both the government and NGOs to raise awareness in the community, but with limited success.

Food supplies being distributed to the Bajau Laut community in a village in Semporna, Sabah, during the recent MCO.

“Let’s say the government comes up with a regulation, the clarity in terms of how it applies to stateless communities like them is just not there.”

These nautical people, masters of the seas for centuries, are currently being battered by the storms of Covid-19 and will suffer even more if further waves hit them.

Perhaps if they had stayed far out to sea they could have ridden out the viral storms wreaking havoc on the world’s landlubbers.

Mukmin Nantang and Maalini Ramalo care enough to throw them lifelines to keep them afloat.

But will anyone with enough power to make a real difference come alongside?

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