Exodus

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After the crackdown, the exodus. A government official estimates that as many as 100,000 Filipinos in Sabah may return to Mindanao by the end of May—a massive remigration that needs to be prepared for. Will the government be ready? And is the Sultanate of Sulu, whose incursion into Sabah precipitated the crisis, in a position to help?

According to a member of the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Crisis Management Committee, who declined to be named, some 5,000 Sabah-based Filipinos were documented arriving in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Basilan last March. “We may expect 100,000 to arrive by May, especially if Malaysia grants our government’s request to give amnesty to the undocumented residents in Sabah,” the DSWD source said.

By DSWD estimates, there may be as many as 550,000 undocumented Filipinos living in Sabah, on top of the 150,000 or so who are either officially registered or dependents of those on the official rolls. The grant of amnesty may indeed push a considerable number of Sabah-based Filipinos to try starting in Mindanao anew; it is also just as possible that Malaysia’s continuing crackdown may force many to return. Now that the Malaysian parliament has been dissolved, and elections are forthcoming, the nationalist appeal of a Sabah-for-Malaysia campaign will be even more attractive to Malaysian politicians; we will not be surprised if the crackdown, the dragnets, even the attempts at hamletting, will continue.

How do we prevent this remigration from turning into a humanitarian problem? We understand that the DSWD in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has geared for the influx. According to the region’s crisis committee, the preparations “include assistance for food, transportation, temporary shelter and other [forms of] recovery and rehabilitation assistance such as livelihood, counseling and the like.”

The DSWD-ARMM website has a section on “deportees” that makes for sober and sometimes unexpectedly poignant reading. In a series of bullet points about the kind of “services extended” by the Tawi-Tawi office to a total of 59 families with 220 dependents, one can read this: “Stress debriefing/individual and group counseling (immediate families discussed and shared initial plans in the absence of family heads).” Or this: “Facilitated request for receipts of Conditional Cash Grants (CCG) by immediate family members in the absence of the grantees (family head/member of Royal Army).”

But the scale of the interventions reported in the website—59 families; 125 “persons/passengers arrived from Sandakan;” 432 “displaced persons from Sabah”—also provokes a larger question about readiness. The government may have been able to handle some 5,000 returnees in the month of March; is it adequately equipped and ready to handle 100,000 in May?

The situation is complicated by the residents’ sympathy for, or even direct involvement in, the so-called “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.” The Navy has said it will continue to deploy 30 vessels in the area, to prevent more sympathizers in the ARMM from joining the “Royal Army” in Sabah. At the same time, the return to Mindanao may also pose another security threat. “There could be armed people who might mix with the evacuees,” said Brig. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for operations.

We cannot also discount the possibility that some politicians, with either the 2013 or 2016 elections in mind, will commandeer returning vessels for that almighty photo opportunity. This will only lengthen the ordeal of the returning residents, who will be treated like political commodities.

It may be best for all concerned that the return of tens of thousands of Filipinos residing in Sabah be handled with as much transparency and honesty as possible. If DSWD-ARMM does not have adequate funds, best to say so now. If the regional police does not have enough personnel to ensure order, best to let Camp Crame know now. If there are no plans to create long-term jobs for the returnees, best to get started now.

The sultanate may also wish to help the very people it claims to have launched the Sabah expedition for. It may not have the money to offer financial aid, but it can help smooth the return of the Sabah residents. To begin with, it can work closely with DSWD-ARMM, helping those families with absent members.

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