In late April and early May, I traveled to Sabah, Malaysia, to meet Sama Dilaut and learn more about their present situation. I visited many islands in the Semporna region making interviews about their livelihood and challenges. Still there are many houseboats in the region and I could also see new houseboats being built. Livelihood is still good but fish is on decline in the region.
Most Sama Dilaut in Malaysia are stateless. They have no legal right to stay in Malaysia and they face risk of deportation to the Philippines. However, many boat nomadic and traditional Sama people have certain “lepa passports” (or boat dwelling passports) that assure them to stay in Malaysia, but these documents are expensive and difficult to renew. In practice, Sama Dilaut run little risk of arrest and deportation as long as they stay in the islands but many of them are afraid of entering Semporna town. When they enter the harbor to sell their fish and buy water, gasoline, cassava and other staples they use middlemen. Many Sama Dilaut do never enter town and they rely on land-dwelling Bajau people with Malaysian IC for all trade. Being stateless do also mean that you can’t get medical care, education and demand for basic social security.
IC Raids in Semporna and Lahad Datu
Raids are common – several times I have witnessed Malaysian police and military making raids in the harbor of Semporna looking for people without legal documents. One time young people threw themselves into the water to stay away from authorities. I have also seen many migrants being sent back to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines, of whom many have lived in Malaysia for decades or have even been born here
One very poor and vulnerable Sama Dilaut community is the Sama Dilaut community in the town of Lahad Datu. In January this year many of the people in the community, including families, were arrested by Malaysian authorities and sent to Tawau, a larger neighbouring city of Semporna. Some managed to run away and started to make a living in Lahad Datu islands. Others were deported to Philippines and eventually made it back to Philippines. During the last trip I met Sama people from Lahad Datu in the small island of Tobalanos in the Semporna region, whom told me that they had been sent to Philippines and then come back again. No one wants to live in the Philippines.
Sama Dilaut Put in Indonesian Camp Released
Last year I reported about Sama Dilaut people from Semporna had been caught for illegal fishing in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and put in a camp in Tanjung Baru. Most of these people came from the islands of Denawan, Omadal and Maiga outside of Semporna. Now, all these people have been released and I talked to many Sama people who had been detained for more than two months. They told me that they had been away for “magosaha” (approximately: search for livelihood) and they said that they will never go back to Indonesia.
Children Live in a Very Difficult Situation
Sama Dilaut children have a very difficult situation. They have no access to medical treatment and schooling. At the same time there is a big population growth in the area and the marine life is limited. Commercial fishing boats are on the increase and destructive fishing methods, as dynamite fishing, is still in practice, also among Sama Dilaut. On islands like Mabul malnourished children die in infections next to partying tourists. Sometimes families stay one day without food.
No one takes the responsibility. Malaysian authorities do not recognize them as citizens and most resorts renounce social responsibility. Most Sama Dilaut completely rely on social connections with people who live under the same difficult situation as them.
Of course, tourism is crucial in order to secure the rich marine life in the area but by utilizing land that have traditionally been used by indigenous peoples you also have to a take social responsibility – and you can’t take it for granted that the local authorities will do so. Resorts should take a bigger social responsibility on the islands they are working on.
Human Photo Safaris
In Semporna human photo safaris are on increase. Many boats leave Semporna harbor every day and head off against islands like Maiga, Bodgaya, Omadal, Nusatenga etc. Sama Dilaut gets exploited as safari boats go up near to their houses and boats taking intrusive photos. Children are encouraged to jump from small houses in exchange for sweets. The tourists, of whom most are Asians, pay a lot of money to the organizers of these trips, but little is sent back to the people that is used in much of the international marketing of the Semporna region.