KOTA KINABALU, April 17 ― The Sabah government is pre-empting a possible influx of refugees escaping conflict in neighbouring countries by identifying an island that could be used to shelter them.
Chief Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal said the state should learn from past experience when Sabah had been host to war refugees fleeing from sectarian conflict in the Philippines during the 1970s.
“It is not for illegal immigration, but a settlement island just in case there is a repeat of a refugee crisis like in the 70s,” he said, clarifying a report that the island was to house illegal immigrants.
“This is for humanitarian reasons, to save the lives of people and families. But they would not be allowed on the mainland,” Shafie said.
Explaining to reporters outside the State Legislative Assembly Building, he said the move would also allow the state to house such refugees in an area isolated from the general population.
He said that any island chosen should be closer to the Philippine border but not near to tourist islands like Sipadan or Mantanani, so the state could exert better control over their movement and maintain security.
“This is still in our direction. As I said in my answer, the security authorities play a huge role, such as in Pulau Bidong in Terengganu, the same kind of concept.
“There is no need to tell Indonesia or Philippines. We are doing this for humanitarian reasons, we can’t leave them out at sea to die, can we?” he said to a question about whether talks involving the neighbouring countries have been initiated.
In the 1970s, with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Malaysian and Sabah governments hosted thousands of Filipino refugees here after they were given a special IMM13 document to signify their refugee status.
There were at least five camps for the Filipino refugees in Malaysia, such as in Kinarut in Papar, Telipok in Kota Kinabalu, Kampung Bahagia in Sandakan, Kampung Selamat in Semporna and Kampung Hidayat in Tawau.
The camps, along with the continual influx of Filipinos even after the conflict ended, have been a political issue for Sabahans, with many blaming the foreigners for criminal activities, economic takeover, demographic shifts, and social ills, among others.
Yesterday, Shafie was reported as saying that the government was in the process of identifying an island to be used as a temporary settlement by illegal immigrants from the Philippines instead of entering Sabah’s land.
Shafie was presented as saying that the island ought to be close to the Philippines border and be a base for a security agency such as the navy.
He was responding to a supplementary question by Tambunan assemblyman Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan who asked him about security issues at the border of Sabah during the sitting.