KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 14 — The Sabah Berjaya government had in the 1970s permitted some 73,000 Filipino refugees to settle permanently in the state provided they were Muslims or were genuinely “displaced persons”, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on illegal immigrants was told in Kota Kinabalu today.
The group, who arrived in Malaysia between 1970 and 1984, was given conditions to qualify for their migration — that they must hail from Western Mindanao and intend to stay permanently in the east Malaysian state.
According to the Chief Minister’s Department’s Settlement Unit head Abdul Jaafar Alip, who was testifying at the first day’s hearing of the RCI, the refugees need not necessarily be Muslims to reside here, but they must be genuine refugees escaping the conflict in the southern Philippines at the time.
“We accept people of any religion to be displaced people,” he told the RCI, according to Malaysiakini today.
He added that five refugee settlements were established since then — the Telipok and Kinarut settlements in Kota Kinabalu, the state’s capital, Kampung Bahagia in Sandakan, Kampung Selamat in Sempoerna and the Hidayah settlement in Tawau.
The Malaysian Insider reported last August that these refugees were later issued the IMM13 documents, a special immigration pass that allows refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) freedom of movement and employment here.
According to Abdul Jaafar, the third witness to testify today, the refugees were also given a special identity card that is not recognised by the National Registration Department (NRD).
But the officer added that the resettlement scheme was suspended in 1985 following the shift in state government from Berjaya to Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS).
Under the PBS administration, Abdul Jaafar said a statewide census was conducted to identify the number of refugees in the settlement who were later issued another document called the “temporary registration card”.
But the document was also not recognised by the NRD as an identity card.
The RCI hearing will go on until January 18 and resume from January 28 to February 1, February 22 to 27.
The issue of illegal immigrants has long turned emotive among Sabah natives like the Kadazandusun and Murut (KDM) communities, many of whom feel that the state’s sovereignty has been stolen through the continued influx of foreigners from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia.
It is no secret that Sabahans are angry and want these foreigners shipped back to their home countries in one way or another. They also often blame the group for robbing them of job opportunities and for the rise in the state’s social, economic and security problems.
“Understandably, Malaysians living in Sabah feel threatened and insecure as the number of foreigners keeps increasing. Incidents of drug-related crimes, burglaries and robberies are common,” former Sabah state secretary Tan Sri Simon Sipaun once wrote in his June 18 article on Sabahkini last year.
“Gone are the days when we could leave our houses unlocked. Now they are like prisons. Things can only get worse if the demand for jobs is not met by employment opportunities,” he added.
The anger among Sabahans has festered over the past four decades and channelled towards the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, largely due to allegations that the ruling pact has been discreetly handing out citizenships to these foreigners in exchange for their votes.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s longest-serving prime minister who ruled from 1981 to 2003, has even been repeatedly accused of spearheading the initiative, known as “Projek M” or “Projek IC”.
Sabah has nearly a million registered voters ― 926,638, to be exact, according to a June report in English-language daily The Star.
Recognising the political significance of the problem, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently agreed to form the RCI to solve Sabah’s illegals problem.
On August 11 last year, Najib made a special trip to Sabah and announced that the panel would be given six months to investigate allegations that foreigners have been unlawfully awarded Malaysian identity cards (ICs) and included in the state’s electoral roll.
But according to the eight-point terms of reference, the panel will not identify the culprit behind the allegedly unlawful award of citizenships to foreigners, recommend any punishment or determine the reasons behind the award.
The opposition has also accused the government, largely Dr Mahathir, of arbitrarily distributing Malaysian ICs to foreigners and registering them as voters in the electoral roll, allegedly to help BN stay in power.
The panel’s terms are:
1. To investigate the number of foreigners in Sabah given blue Malaysian ICs or citizenship;
2. To investigate if the award of such ICs or citizenship were according to the law;
3. To investigate if those given blue ICs, temporary identification receipts or citizenship through unlawful means have been registered in Sabah’s electoral roll;
4. To investigate if the authorities have taken any action or made improvements to standard operating procedures (SOPs), methods and regulations to prevent any irregularities in accordance with the law;
5. To conduct a deeper probe into the SOPs, methods and regulations on the award of blue ICs or citizenships to foreigners in Sabah by taking into consideration international norms and standards that are applicable to Malaysia, and to recommend amendments or changes to improve current practices;
6. To investigate the reasons behind Sabah’s population growth according to the following categories:
a) Sabah citizens residing in the state, including those given blue ICs or citizenship through birth certificates (late registration);
b) foreign workers (including family members);
c) illegal immigrants (including family members); and
and to study their impact on the number of those registered in the electoral roll;
7. To investigate the social implications on the Sabah community following the award of blue ICs or citizenship to foreigners in the state; and
8) To investigate the number of “stateless” foreigners in Sabah given blue ICs or citizenship.