Illegal immigrants in Sabah is not just a seasonal election issue

by RAdm (Maritime) Karunanithi Munusamy (Retd)


KOTA KINABALU: It is a public knowledge that Sabah has the highest number of illegal immigrants in Malaysia.

In 2020, the population of Sabah was estimated to be approximately 3.9 million, of which a third of the population are foreigners.

About a third of these foreigners are holding some kind of legal identity/travel documents whilst the remaining majority are illegal immigrants!​​

The problem started in the early 70’s when tens of thousands of Filipino refugees fled into Sabah, escaping political turmoil in the Southern Philippines.

Almost at the same time or earlier, illegal economic migrants from both Indonesia and the Southern Philippines began infiltrating regularly into Sabah in small numbers.

It was the presence of large numbers of refugees were the focus of state attentions then.

The small groups of illegal economic migrants escaped public attention.

Over the years, the number of illegal economic migrants continued to grow until they caught the public attention in the 80’s; whom the public saw them as a threat to their security and socio-economic well-being. 

​Illegal immigrants in the Malaysian context, among others include; (1) foreigners coming into the country illegally without any travel document; (2) asylum seekers, refugees and trafficked victims; (3) refugees in Sabah with expired IMM 13 (holders need to renew it yearly for a fee); (4) children born to foreign national in Malaysia whose birth have not been registered; (5) overstayers whose entry permits have expired; (6) foreign workers with expired work permit/passes; (7) pass abusers/breach the term of authorisation; and (8) foreigners in possession of false documents and or holding genuine documents obtained fraudulently.

It is interesting to note that Malaysia has not ratified the United Nation Convention on Refugees 1951 and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and it is not obliged to accommodate refugees.

Hence the presence of refugees in Malaysia is considered illegal immigrants. ​

Although Malaysia is not obliged to accommodate refugees, it also cannot deny them a stay in the country as Malaysia is expected to observe some of the UN conventions with regard to the rights of refugees, immigrants and human rights.

Based on political consideration and the principle of non-refoulment, the refugees in Sabah have long been granted special permission to stay with limited access to employment, social services and public amenities.  ​

We have also seen many policy initiatives undertaken by the authorities in the last 3 decades to address the growing numbers of illegal immigrants; (1) enforcement operations; OP NYAH, OP PATI, OP GASAK, OP BENTENG; (2) amnesty programmes that include 3P/5P/6P; (3) regularisation exercises; (4) amendments to the Immigration Act 1959/63 and Passport Act 1969; (5) Anti-trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007; (6) the establishment of Special Court for Illegal Immigrants; (7) the many deportations of illegal immigrants; (8) the 2012 RCI on illegal immigrants in Sabah; and (9) 6pm-6am curfew at sea from waters north of Sandakan to Tawau.

But despite all those measures, we are still unable to contain the growing numbers of illegal immigrants in Sabah. ​

As a retired naval and law enforcement officer, I have a few points to emphasise pertaining to territorial integrity and sovereignty of Malaysia in general and Sabah in particular with the hope that this long-drawn issue is addressed with urgency. 

Firstly, the Philippines government has not relinquished its claim on Sabah. The presence of large number of Filipino illegal immigrants could be a source for its fifth columnists. It is a fact that many of them in Tanduo provided the Royal Sulu Force (RSF) shelter, logistics and moral support during the 2013 incursion and stand-off. I am sure some of us still remember when the then Home Minister revealed in Parliament on 21 Mac 2016 that the Sulu terrorists had appointed a commander for each state constituency in Sabah towards establishing a Sulu Sultanate in Sabah. 

Secondly, due to their close ethnic and family ties, the communities along both borders do not recognise the geographical boundary between Sabah and Southern Philippines but the social boundary they are accustomed to.

Thirdly, many illegal immigrants resorted to obtaining fake Malaysian documents such as ICs, birth certificates and others. Additionally, there are cases where genuine documents were secured through fraudulent means.

And lastly, the reluctance of the Philippine government to establish a consulate in Sabah to help expedite the deportation processes. I see that it has a likely bearing on the claim on Sabah despite the occasional mobile consular missions visits by Embassy staff from Kuala Lumpur to attend to those deportation processes. ​

Consequently, there ought to be a cut-out point to contain the growing numbers of illegal immigrants in Sabah as this issue grows in complexity each day we delay.

In September 2019, it was reported that the state government agreed to issue Sabah Temporary Pass (PSS) beginning I June 2020. I was excited that at last we see a firm political will to address the issue.

But sadly, this plan was scrapped in January 2020 when the PSS issue came under intense political scrutiny during the Kimanis by-election campaign.

Then in May 2020 there was this proposal to issue New Sabah Specific Identity Cards, in line with the 2012 Royal Commission of Inquiry Report but this proposal is yet to see its light due to political change and Covid 19.   

​All said and done, the illegal immigrants’ problem in Sabah is complex indeed and certainly requires a coordinated and well-planned mechanism.

Firstly, there ought to be a display of firm political will to solve this problem with urgency.

Secondly, the solution should be based on the rule of law and not based on which political parties in power.

Lastly, use the recommendations of the 2012 RCI Report as the underlay and complement it with the many scholarly and subject matter experts’ studies and recommendations to map out implementation plan. 

​Since Sabah has successfully flattened the Covid 19 pandemic with resolve and dedication, while some other states are still grappling, I am sure this long-standing illegal immigrants’ issue could be addressed with the same vigour. 

RAdm (Maritime) Karunanithi Munusamy (Retd)
Former Director Maritime Enforcement, ESSCOM

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