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Sabah’s invisible children

Human Rights

Bajau Laut people are nomadic. They are born on boats and live out at sea. © Al Jazeera

I was born and bred in Malaysian Borneo, in Sarawak, the state bordering Sabah.

It is always good to return to the familiar, easy way of Borneans. I spend five days meeting countless families from villages across Sabah before the rest of the team arrived to start filming.

However, my familiarity with this part of Malaysia is what made this trip all the more confronting – the need to abandon the stereotypes of illegal migrants that I have grown up with, and to be welcomed into their lives. It is as if for the longest time I had chosen not to see.

Every child we meet at the Tawau fish market runs away at top speed, often barefoot. The local stall owners tell us it’s because they are all undocumented. They have perfected the survival skill of running and hiding at the first sight of the authorities.

We try to win them over with smiles, friendly chats, and when that doesn’t work, we play it cool. The children eye us suspiciously from behind pillars, curious but afraid to come too close.

It is only after spending days filming at the fish market that a few five-year-olds work up the courage to walk up to us and ask, ‘Are you ESSCOM? Police?’

ESSCOM – the Eastern Sabah Security Command, has the unenviable task of securing the 1,733-kilometre-long, notoriously porous sea border of Sabah, weeding out insurgents and illegal immigrants. Estimates of illegals here number between a few hundred thousand to over a million. Most are economic and conflict refugees from the neighbouring Philippines and Indonesia, and they move seamlessly through smugglers’ routes known as ‘Rat Alleys’.  

When we convince the kids that we are not here to arrest them, they almost immediately stick their palms out and ask for money. My colleague, reporter Chan Tau Chou, is the first to successfully engage them with football chatter. They start taunting him for having a cleanly shaved head and laughing freely, and we know they have become fast friends.

Migration in these waters has been going on for generations, even before national borders were drawn. The children of migrants are born here and have never known any other home. Intermarriage between locals and migrants means authorities are now dealing with greying shades of illegality.

If caught, those without official documents are detained and sent back to the Philippines or Indonesia. But most return within a week. Determined to stay with their families, it is a constant game of cat and mouse. The dauntless children brag about being able to outrun the cops – until tragedy strikes.

We arrived at Totong and Erma’s water-village home the day after they buried their three sons. The boys drowned while hiding from authorities during a raid to flush out illegal migrants. The whole family, like most villagers here, is undocumented. They came to Sabah to flee conflict in the southern Philippines.

Emotions are running high. People shift restlessly in the heat of the small wooden house that sways at the slightest movement. The interview takes on three different languages with three-way translations. It’s a challenge.

Then there is the matter of trust. A steady stream of journalists has flowed through their home in the past few days. ‘But they all report a different story from what we tell them,’ says Abraham Insani, a relative of the three boys and a local community leader.

They tell us about life as illegals, the constant fear and the helplessness they feel when faced with the authorities.

Erma, the boys’ mother, is slouched in the corner, staring into space. ‘I’d better die too,’ she says, addressing no-one in particular.

Totong is struggling to keep it together in the presence of visitors. And then, suddenly, he breaks. He grabs onto our reporter, sobbing hard and apologizing for not being able to say more because he is too distraught. The rest of the house falls silent. I look away from the private moment.

‘We will not do anything. We only rest our hopes in God,’ says Totong. He accepts his fate because he has few options. He will not push for an investigation into his sons’ deaths. There is no fight left in him. His acceptance hits me hard.

I remind myself that there is much to be done, quickly. The sun is setting fast. We are unfamiliar faces in a ‘black area’ that authorities target for crimes like smuggling, drug dealing and armed intrusion. There is only one way in and out of the village, across a maze of rickety wooden bridges. The plan is to get out before dark.

It seems that just as soon as we arrive, treading over the most private moments of these villagers’ lives, it is time to turn and leave. Condolences are hurried and night has fallen by the time we make the long drive back.

Sabah’s Invisible Children can be viewed here in full.

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