KUALA LUMPUR, June 6 — More than 500 people from sea-faring communities around the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state have been evicted from their homes this week as part of a crackdown against undocumented migrants, local activists said.

The Bajau Laut are a community of mostly stateless sea nomads, living offshore in wooden houseboats or huts built on stilts in the Semporna district of Sabah on Borneo island.

Born without identification documents, most do not have access to basic facilities such as education, financial or health services. They often live in fear of being deported or detained by immigration authorities, who do not make a distinction between stateless residents and undocumented migrants.

An estimated 1 million undocumented migrants and stateless residents are believed to be living in Sabah, accounting for a third of the state’s population.

Malaysia in recent years has stepped up enforcement against illegal migration, detaining around 45,000 undocumented people since May 2020, Human Rights Watch said in March this year.

Since Tuesday, enforcement officials have been burning and demolishing houses belonging to the Bajau Laut on seven islands in Semporna, said Mukmin Nantang, the founder of Sabah-based social advocacy group Borneo Komrad.

The officials were unidentified but were believed to be part of an enforcement task force, Mukmin said, adding that some communities had received prior notice of the operation from Sabah Parks, a conservation body managed by the state government.

“Some of the houses were pulled down by large boats, some were burned down,” he told Reuters by phone.

A video posted by Borneo Komrad on social media showed various structures burning offshore, while another showed several men, some in uniform, smashing a wooden hut on a beach with large sticks before burning it down. Reuters was not able to independently verify the authenticity of the videos.

Sabah Parks and Malaysia’s Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the police and immigration department, did not respond to requests for comment.

Malaysia does not keep official statistics on the Bajau Laut population, who have roamed the seas of north-eastern Borneo and the southern Philippines for centuries.

“The Bajau Laut have been living in the area since before there were official borders. The actions being taken against them is just cruel,” Mukmin said.

Ahmad Kamil of aid group Surau Al Falah Taman Sempaul Semporna, confirmed that some communities were notified before the evictions but were either unable to understand the notices or could not comply.

“The Bajau Laut do not understand local laws. Besides, where else could they go?” he said. — Reuters