Anywhere but here: Deported human trafficking victims dream of life as illegals in Sabah

Deportees wait in line at Bongao’s Municipal Social Work and Development Office for their free meals and tickets back home. They are the latest batch of undocumented residents and workers deported from Sabah, Malaysia. (Photo by Joseph Arnel Deliverio)

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi—They were arrested by authorities for illegally working in Malaysia, and detained for months in cramped cells where they were fed only twice a day. Yet the four Filipino deportees said they would give up everything for a chance to go back, even if it meant going through the whole ordeal again.

Didto, 30 ringgits ra kada adlaw amo sweldo, pero dako nana kung gastohon dire, (There we earned at least 30 ringgits a day, and it is already more than enough if you spend it here in the Philippines),” said 58-year-old Jose, not his real name, from Barangay Ayala in Zamboanga City.

Thirty Malaysian ringgits is equivalent to around P400.

Jose is among the more than 300 Filipino illegal workers who arrived here in Bongao after being deported from Semporna, Malaysia last week. Their stories are the oft-repeated tales of people who, unable to find work in their hometowns, fall victim to human trafficking syndicates who place them in exploitative working situations.

The Malaysian government regularly deports illegal workers and they arrive in Tawi-Tawi by batches twice a week, said Carmen V. Colinares, officer-in-charge of the social work office of Bongao.

But this does not stop the hordes of unemployed Filipinos leaving to find work in Malaysia, Colinares said.

Bukod sa maliit ang suweldo, nahihiya silang mag-laborers dito. Doon, kahit laborer lang, magsweldo sila hanggang P18,000 a month (Aside from the meager salary, they are ashamed to work as laborers here. There, even as a laborer, they will earn as much as P18,000 per month),” said Colinares.

Malaysian authorities discovered that the 300 Filipinos were working in Sabah without proper documents: They had no passports, no working or tourist visas, and no employment contracts.

In February, the Malaysian police suddenly raided their quarters and started arresting those who could not produce their travel or working documents.

The Filipinos were then detained in cramped cells and given two meager meals a day, Jose said. But even while still in the detention, they were already planning their return to Malaysia.

Jose said he, together with three others, were duped by their recruiters to work in Sabah.

Christian, 24, said his recruiter was his own relative. “After he got our money, we were left alone by our recruiter just when we arrived in Sabah more than two years ago.” Christian is from Guipos in Zamboanga del Sur.

The four found work as laborers in palm tree plantations and palm oil processing plants in Kiningao, a region near Kota Kinabalu.

“We kept hiding, we can’t even walk along highways and main roads,” said another deportee from Talisay in Cebu.

Jan-jan, 17, said he arrived in Sabah when he was 14. He earned 45 ringgits a day and was able to build a house for his mother in Guipos in Zamboanga del Sur.

Colinares said most of the deportees would want to go back, given the chance.

As for the four, they said they will get new passports to enable them return to Sabah. Christian, meanwhile, will need to recuperate first before returning. He was stricken with malaria while there, he said.

The four said that there are still around 3,500 Filipinos detained in Tawau and Semporna awaiting deportation to the Philippines.

(This story is part of VERA Files’ project Human Trafficking Casewatch supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Facility and Embassy of Canada. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)


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Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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