BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews / 17 March) – The putting up of a one-stop processing center in Taganak in the Turtle Islands emerged Sunday as a solution to help returning undocumented Filipinos to legally enter back Sabah, Malaysia expeditiously.
This developed as many undocumented Filipinos already there await shipment back home for fear of getting arrested and imprisoned as Malaysian security forces continue to implement stricter security measures while going after Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram and his armed followers who landed there last month supposedly to assert the claims of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu over Sabah.
Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman told reporters she would propose to President Benigno Simeon Aquino III the establishment of a one-stop processing center in Taganak to facilitate the papers of Filipinos who want to return to Sabah.
“The feedback we’re receiving from our team in Malaysia is that many of our countrymen would like to return to our country. These are the undocumented Filipinos who fear they will be caught and jailed as Malaysian authorities continue their search for the [Filipino] armed men,” she said.
Soliman said the one-stop shop in Taganak would help the returning Filipinos to easily obtain documents should they want to go back to Sabah.
Taganak is the nearest Philippine soil to Sabah and would be convenient than going to the existing one-stop shop in Zamboanga City to get the necessary documents, she noted.
From Taganak to Sabah, where an estimated 800,000 undocumented Filipinos have been staying, it would reportedly just take less than an hour by speedboat.
Soliman, who arrived here on a chartered plane, said the number of evacuees processed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao now stands at 2,416, including those from Region 9 or Western Mindanao, since the first wave of arrival on March 4.
“We are expecting more will be coming home,” she added.
Soliman said that Malaysia needs Filipinos for its labor force thus it is essential that a one-stop shop be put up in Taganak to help those who want to go back to Sabah.
The DSWD secretary said the proposed one-stop shop would be discussed together with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Bureau of Immigration, Department of Justice and the Department of Labor and Employment.
She met with Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali, who assured that the situation in the province is still manageable with majority of the evacuees now back to their homes.
The governor told reporters that if the Malaysian security operation against Kiram and his followers will continue, thousands of Filipinos originally from Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi are expected to come home.
“If that happens, that would be a big problem. Many have been staying there [Sabah] for 10 to 20 years, with good lives and with houses. If they will be uprooted there, they would practically start from zero here. They have sold their lands here when they went to Sabah [a long time ago],” he said.
In the event of mass deportations, Sahali said they are anticipating problems on shelters as well as livelihood of these people.
But he noted that the provincial government is already preparing a shelter program with a livelihood component in case the anticipated massive arrivals would happen.
Soliman said that Sahali already submitted a proposal to the National Housing Authority for the shelter project for the evacuees who will opt not to go back to Sabah.
In case of mass deportations, Soliman said the agency would get in touch with the Maritime Industry Authority to allow commercial passenger vessels to fetch those coming home in case more ships are needed.
Meanwhile, Sahali disclosed that he has received reports that Kiram has allegedly slipped past the Malaysian naval cordon and is back in the island-provinces. But that is still subject for confirmation, he told reporters.
If indeed Kiram is confirmed already in Philippine territory, this might prompt Malaysia to stop the military operation against him that has affected our fellow Filipinos in Sabah, Sahali said.
For now, Soliman and Sahali said that evacuation centers in this town are ready in case of fresh arrivals.
“At the moment, we can still handle the situation. We will ask the help of the national government if we can no longer manage the situation,” Sahali said, referring to the evacuees.
Sahali also said that there is no food shortage in the province so far with enough locally made products as well “as goods from Sandakan that continue to reach Tawi-Tawi.” (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)