Sabah's invisible children

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Sabah’s invisible children

By Sarah Yeo

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

I was born in Malaysian Borneo, in Sarawak, next to Sabah. And I grew up there.

It is always good to go back to Borneo. I spend five days meeting many families from villages in Sabah. Then the rest of the team arrived to start filming.

I know this part of Malaysia well. But on this trip, I needed to work with the illegal migrants. When I was growing up, I saw them as a stereotype.

Every child we meet at the Tawau fish market runs away very fast, often with no shoes. The local stall owners say this is because they have no documents. They are very good at running and hiding when they see the authorities. They need to be to survive.

We smile at them and try to talk to them and be friendly. But that doesn’t work. Then we try to be cool. The children look at us from where they are hiding. They are interested, but afraid to come too close.

After days of filming at the fish market, a few five-year-olds are brave enough to come up to us and ask, ‘Are you ESSCOM? Police?’

ESSCOM is the Eastern Sabah Security Command. They control the 1,733-kilometre sea border of Sabah, to find illegal immigrants. No-one knows how many illegals there are – there could be a few hundred thousand or more than a million. Most come from the Philippines and Indonesia and are economic and conflict refugees. They come in through smugglers’ routes called ‘Rat Alleys’.

When the kids understand we are not here to arrest them, they hold out their hands and ask for money. My colleague, reporter Chan Tau Chou, starts to talk with them about football. They laugh and we know they have become our friends.

Migration has been going on here for hundreds of years, even before national borders. The children of migrants are born here and have never had another home. Some marry local people, so there are many different ways of being illegal.

If the authorities catch them, they arrest people with no official documents and then send them back to the Philippines or Indonesia. But most of them come back about a week later. They want to stay with their families, so this happens many times. The children like to say they can run faster than the police – until there is a tragedy.

We arrived at Totong and Erma’s water-village home the day after they buried their three sons. The boys drowned while they were hiding when the authorities were trying to find illegal migrants. No-one in the family has documents, like most people in the village. They came to Sabah to run away from the conflict in the southern Philippines.

Everyone is emotional. It is hot in the small wooden house. The interview is in three different languages with three-way translations. It’s not easy.

And it is difficult for them to trust people. Many journalists have come to 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. They feel afraid and helpless all the time.

Erma, the mother of the boys, is sitting in the corner. ‘It’s better for me to die too,’ she says, to no-one.

Totong is trying to stay calm. But suddenly he starts crying a lot. He can’t talk any more because he is so upset. The house becomes silent. I can’t look.

‘We will not do anything. We can only hope God will help,’ says Totong. He does not have any choice. He cannot get an investigation into the deaths of his sons. He has no energy to fight.

We have a lot to do, quickly. The sun is going down. We have to get out of the village before dark because this is a ‘black area’. The authorities know there is a lot of crime, like smuggling, drug dealing and armed intrusion. There is only one way in and out of the village, across many small, old wooden bridges.

With no more time, we have seen the most private moments of these villagers’ lives. We say goodbye and it is night when we make the long drive back.

See the complete article, Sabah’s Invisible Children here: