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Call them balikbayans, not refugees

A boy rests on a placard during a rally near the Malaysian embassy in Makati City yesterday. The  rallyists condemned the ongoing military actions by Malaysia against the followers of the Sulu sultan in Sabah. EDD GUMBAN

MANILA, Philippines - More than 1,000 Filipinos who have fled the violence in Sabah and now subsist on government relief goods in Sulu should be considered balikbayans and not refugees, according to Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman.

“Please don’t call them refugees, because as far as we are concerned they are balikbayans,” Soliman told reporters in a briefing at Malacañang yesterday.

The government also now appears cool to investigating alleged rights abuses by Malaysian forces as Soliman made clear that they would be investigated only if victims come forward to file charges.

Even Commission on Human Rights chair Loretta Ann Rosales has declared that they are shifting focus from investigating the alleged abuses to ensuring that the needs of displaced Filipinos are properly addressed once they reach the Philippines.

Soliman said the “instruction of the President is to, first, find the evidence; and then, it will be upon the recommendation of DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) what we need to do.”

“We don’t have an official document. What we have is what the media is talking about. We have not recorded at this point any of the abuses that have been reported in the media,” Soliman said.

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“As of now, we are not in possession of any document that says there is abuse,” she said in Filipino. “Like I said, we have to ask them if they still want to have their stories published.”

Soliman also told reporters “it will be the decision of the complainant” to make his or her case public or file a complaint, but clarified that any information would be kept confidential.

“All these were given in confidence. Only if they allow themselves to be interviewed by media that we can give their names,” she said.

“It is because not all victims want their case to be brought up in media,” Soliman added.

She said some victims don’t want to make their ordeal public since they intend to return to Sabah or are worried about their relatives left in the territory.

She said the DSWD would help displaced Filipinos get proper documents so they could return to Sabah if they wish to.

At the same time, the government is vigorously assisting displaced families meet basic needs, she said.

“We have opened the humanitarian corridor for them since Friday. We are bringing food and other needs,” she said.

Soliman stressed priority would be given to children, women and the elderly.

“We are reaching out to them… they need help because they don’t have source of income, source of food,” she said.

Soliman also said that aside from relief assistance, they also provide stress debriefing and counseling to affected individuals.

Akap Bata party-list also urged the government to provide extra protection to children affected by the armed conflict in Sabah.

“Children are the most vulnerable sector of our society, whenever there is a conflict they are the first and are gravely affected. Kids can never defend themselves, that is why it is the main duty of the state to protect them from conflicts and violence,” Lean Flores, Akap Bata party-list spokesperson, said.

Rosales of CHR said she has sent more people to attend to the needs of displaced Filipinos in Sabah.

“We had to augment our team because what’s important now is to organize the database for the Filipinos coming home because definitely, when they come home from Sabah, they will need homes, they will need shelter, they will need work, they will need all those things,” Rosales told The STAR yesterday.

“Let’s bring them back and then when they come home, we can give them their basic rights, right to shelter, right to food, right to work, right to health,” Rosales said.

Rosales earlier said she would request the human rights body of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and that of Malaysia – called SUHAKAM – to look into allegations of abuses committed against Filipinos in Sabah by Malaysian security forces.

In Tawi-Tawi, relief workers have documented a total of 1,079 Filipino evacuees from Sabah in the past five days, while hundreds more might have landed in remote island towns far from the provincial capital. Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman said that based on feedback from local officials, the number of refugees may have reached more than 1,500 – including the undocumented ones.

“But all of them, documented or those still being processed, are now receiving food, medicine and other provisions they need,” Hataman said.

Hataman said the impact of the surge of refugees on the economy of Tawi-Tawi is immense.

“Merchants in Tawi-Tawi get the food supplies they sell to people in the province from Sabah, which is very near to them,” Hataman said. “The conflict in Sabah also has very serious ramifications on the economy of Tawi-Tawi, and even some islands in Sulu.”

Tawi-Tawi Vice Gov. Ruby Sahali said about 80 percent of the consumer goods sold in stores in the provincial capital and in trading centers come from Sabah.

She said visiting Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II had witnessed himself how prices had gone up in the province.

Petroleum products from Sabah sold in Tawi-Tawi were 20 to 30 percent cheaper than those sold in fuel retail stations in other Mindanao provinces before the outbreak of violence in the violence. The violence has also sharply pushed up prices of consumer goods in Tawi-Tawi, Sahali said.

Intercepted

As refugees from Sabah continued to arrive, 35 suspected followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III on two boats were intercepted yesterday by the Navy in the waters between Tawi-Tawi and Sabah.

“Based on reports submitted to us by our patrol ships BRP Mariano Alvarez (PS38) and BRP Jose Andradea (PG-370), they intercepted the two small watercraft at around 6:30 a.m. We do not know yet if they came from Sabah or were going there,” Navy spokesman, Lt. Commander Gregory Fabic said.

Seized from the boat passengers – including a woman – were several firearms and ammunition, Fabic said.

One of the passengers was wounded, but it was not clear if he had been wounded in combat.

There are 34 ships involved in the naval blockade in the Sulu Sea. Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the vessels are also engaged in humanitarian assistance to Filipinos fleeing Sabah.

“While the transport of evacuees is ongoing, our troops on the ground continue to provide sea marshaling to all commercial vessels traveling from Zamboanga City pier to Suba-Nipa-Margosatubig, Lamitan, Isabela, Jolo and Tawi-Tawi to ensure the safety and security of the passengers,” Burgos said.

Meanwhile, the council of datu of the Sulu sultanate met in Zamboanga City yesterday where they denounced the Malaysian crackdown, calling it “ethnic cleansing” of Tausugs in Sabah.

The council comprised 70 members of the royal datus and elders of the Sulu sultanate from Palawan, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

“Civilians are being harassed, arrested, beat up and brutally killed. We believe that this operation and so-called crackdown is part of their ethnic cleansing to stop our people from going to Sabah,” said Datu Albi Julkarnain, chairman of the council of royal datus.

“This is genocide, it’s ethnic cleansing, they want all Tausugs to be wiped out of Sabah,” according to Julkarnain. With Roel Pareño, Jaime Laude, John Unson, Helen Flores, Michael Punongbayan

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