The Lost Boys of Sabah

By Greg Constantine

Destitute immigrants make up one-third of Sabah State in Malaysian Borneo

It’s 6:30 a.m. at the fish market in downtown Kota Kinabalu, in the Sabah State of Malaysian Borneo. Jimmy, 11, has been at work since 5 a.m., pushing his cart around the stalls.

Nearby, two older boys, aged 13 and 14, rouse themselves from their makeshift beds atop a pile of crates and take the first sniffs of glue from a can that will be half empty by the end of the day. A group of other boys stir and get ready for another day’s work.

It’s not all work, however. Beyond the town, in the Kinarut slum area, a group of youngsters set up a gaming table, light up cigarettes and start gambling. 

An estimated 30,000 residents of Sabah are stateless, unknown numbers of them children with no nationality, no future and little sympathy from the state’s Malaysian citizens.

Conflict in the Philippines in the 1970s sent a wave of Filipino refugees to Sabah.  The local Sabah government initially sheltered the newcomers, who provided cheap labor on the state’s palm oil plantations. The prospect of work in a friendly environment drew others, many of them illegally, not only from the Philippines but also from Indonesia.

There are now an estimated 1 million Filipinos and Indonesians in Sabah, making up one-third of the state’s total population. The presence of such a large immigrant population has led to increasing local prejudice, discrimination and social strain.

The immigrants find themselves discriminated against not only in Sabah but on a national scale, excluded by successive Malaysian governments keen to protect the interests of the country’s own citizens.

Marriages of foreigners that take place in Malaysia are not recognized by the Malaysian government. The absence of a Filipino consulate in Sabah makes it virtually impossible to obtain the documents necessary to register the births of immigrants born there. Those birth certificates that are issued are stamped with “foreigner,” inviting discrimination.

Migrant children without the necessary documents are excluded from access to public education, social services and legal protection and are unable to travel freely. Medical fees for foreigners for treatment in government hospitals were increased three years ago to levels that few migrant families can afford.

Immigration authorities assisted by a citizen task force are ruthless in rounding up illegal immigrants, who face rapid deportation and the breakup of families. The lost children of Sabah, unwanted by Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, are condemned to an anonymous life in limbo.

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