The complicated landscape of Sabah’s illegals

The government is finally taking action on the longstanding problem of illegal immigrants in Sabah by issuing a temporary Sabah pass (PSS) to qualified foreigners who hold existing documents beginning June 1 next year.

The announcement caught many off guard. In May this year, Deputy Home Minister Azis Jamman was reported as saying in a national newspaper that the state government has no right or plans to issue documents to illegal immigrants in the state.

He was responding to Sabah PPBM chief Hajiji Noor who was heard at an event questioning the rationale behind the state government’s move to issue documents to PTI or illegal immigrants, citing security reasons, among others.

To this, Azis said: “The Warisan state government has never said it wants to issue documents to illegal immigrants, nor have we ever planned to take illegal immigrants as our own.”

Shafie Apdal’s proposal to place illegal immigrants on an island close to the border did not go down well with Hajiji either. It now appears that Warisan has U-turned on its earlier stand.

According to Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the pass will replace three documents – the IMM13, burung-burung certificate and census certificate – that have been issued to over 600,000 refugees and economic migrants since the 1970s.

Shafie said the move was an important step towards resolving the issue of illegal immigrants in the state.

It is a step in the right direction, I agree, but I doubt it will ever resolve the issue.

In the US, which is facing the same problems, Donald Trump is taking a tougher stand on deporting illegals, even to the point of separating families.

This is a bold move by Shafie but many fear for the future of the state. A straw poll I conducted after the announcement showed that people agreed to registering illegal immigrants, but not to issuing them a pass to stay in Sabah. The consensus was that they should be deported and then re-enter Sabah legally. But this is easier said than done as many have settled in Sabah and consider it their home.

The move to issue PSS to illegals has invited criticism from political leaders within the ruling coalition as well as from opposition parties. Ordinary Sabahans, too, are concerned as there are few details available as to what will follow after the registration process.

Will the next step lead to permanent residency or citizenship? Will they be accorded greater access to state infrastructure like medical facilities and schools, competing with the rest of the population? Will they be entitled to government-subsidised housing, seeing as a huge number of them live in squatter colonies? Will they require work permits to work in Sabah? Will they be allowed to hold positions in the government or join political parties? Will they pay taxes like everyone else? Will they be given amnesty for illegal entry?

The devil is in the details, which are sorely missing. As usual, government ideas like the introduction of khat in the education system are half-baked, with little thought given to the final outcome. In the end, khat became a diluted version of what was originally proposed. Will the same happen with PSS?

The issue of illegal immigrants is a complicated and never-ending story for Sabah. It is also an emotive issue. A royal commission of inquiry on illegal immigrants was held in 2012, but the outcome was not satisfactory and left the door open to more speculation rather than decisive action. There was no accountability for what had happened.

Successive political leaders have let the issue slide instead of taking the bull by the horns. It is easy for people to assign blame on certain figures for the influx of illegals in the state, but it becomes a moot point when it is in the past tense. The influx of foreign nationals happened decades ago, and any solution presented today will be unsatisfactory. These people are already in our midst and have produced generations who were born and bred here. Don’t expect President Duterte to take them back when the Philippines still has a claim over Sabah. Many of them were born here and have no connection with the land of their forefathers.

The figures quoted by Muhyiddin hold great significance as, for the first time, we have some estimate of how many illegal immigrants there are in the state.

According to Muhyiddin, 586,367 illegals have been deported from Sabah from 1990 until Sept 4 this year. This confirms that Sabah has a porous border. Based on these figures, an average of 20,000 illegals have entered Sabah every year since 1990. Without solid data, the estimated number of 600,000 is probably only the tip of the iceberg.

For comparison, a local paper in March this year reported figures from the Department of Statistics showing that Sabah has the second highest population in Malaysia after Selangor at 3.9 million in 2017. In the city alone, there are 553,900 people.

Malaysians make up 2,741,700, while foreigners number 1,158,300 or approximately 30% of the total population. Sabah immigration director Musa Sulaiman, citing numbers given by federal authorities and figures separately compiled by his department, said about 70% of foreigners in the state are illegal immigrants.

If 70% of the 1,158,300 foreigners are illegal, the number of 600,000 entitled to PSS is very conservative. A figure of 800,000 would be more accurate.

For IMM13 holders, there is no clarity on their status. Malaysia, like most of its Southeast Asian neighbours, did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It maintains that newly arrived aliens are illegal immigrants rather than refugees.

The terminology is also obscure as Malaysian law (Immigration Act 1959/63) apparently does not distinguish between undocumented economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and trafficked people; all are designated as illegal immigrants.

The term “illegal immigrant” refers to a variety of groups who are all liable to arrest, detention and deportation for immigration offences.

If this is the case as I understand it, the 600,000 are all liable to arrest, detention and deportation for immigration offences. However, we know that this is not a practical solution and easier said than done.

It would be best for the government to engage with political parties and civic groups to get their feedback and suggestions before implementing its plan.

You’re not talking about giving free passes at cinemas, but passes that will change Sabah’s demographics forever.

PSS is Warisan’s solution. What is yours?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.