Bajau Laut sea nomads evicted from their homes in Sabah

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Pusat Komas is deeply concerned by the recent eviction of the Bajau Laut community in Semporna, Sabah.

The NGO Borneo Komrad claimed that the Bajau Laut community of Semporna were evicted by the authorities and their stilt houses were demolished.

According to its founder Mukmin Nantang, the operation was said to have been carried out on Tuesday and Wednesday against the Bajau Laut community living on seven islands in Semporna, including Pulau Bohey Dulang, Pulau Maiga, Pulau Bodgaya, Pulau Sebangkat and Pulau Sibuan.

The demolition of their stilt houses on the seven islands highlights critical issues of racism, developmental injustice and statelessness in Sabah.

The Bajau Laut – who practise a nomadic lifestyle at sea and live in small boats or houses on stilts at the coast or in shallow waters – face systemic discrimination.

Their forced removal raises serious questions about the equitable treatment of ethnic minorities in Malaysia. It is imperative to ensure that all communities are respected and protected under national and international human rights laws.

At its core, human rights laws establish that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) further affirms that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

Similarly, the Federal Constitution provides under Article 8 that all citizens will be afforded equal protection under the law and that discrimination is prohibited based on religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender.

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It should also be asked: from whom did these ‘authorities’ receive the mandate to carry out such violent destruction? They must be held accountable for the forced displacement of the Bajau Laut here.

The principles of the UN’s “leave no one behind” goal must be upheld to ensure inclusive development for all communities.

Sustainable development should involve comprehensive planning that considers the needs and rights of indigenous peoples.

The eviction of the Bajau Laut without adequate consultation or solutions for alternative housing exemplifies a failure to balance development with social justice.

Providing alternative homes for stateless people is not only essential to eliminating statelessness in itself – a major step to securing universal human rights.

Further, the citizenship status of many Bajau Laut individuals complicates their ability to claim legal rights and protections. Many lack proper identification documents, exacerbating their vulnerability to evictions and other forms of disenfranchisement.

Addressing these documentation issues is crucial for ensuring they receive fair treatment and access to essential services.

Let us be reminded of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk’s recent call to end statelessness, in its various forms, during a speech made at the end of his mission to Malaysia just this week.

Türk said: “How a society treats its most vulnerable is a key measure of progress, and indeed a litmus test for social and human rights protection. I welcome the Malaysia Madani [civil and compassionate Malaysia] national vision, which is about humanity, inclusivity, sustainability as well as just and effective governance.

“I welcome the proposed constitutional amendment to enable Malaysian women to pass citizenship on to their children on the same basis as Malaysian men. I hope that all possible steps will be taken to address other forms of statelessness.”

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Pusat Komas respectfully calls on the local authorities to halt further evictions and engage in meaningful dialogue with the Bajau Laut community to find humane and just solutions.

The issue of statelessness has plagued the lives of several generations, particularly in the state of Sabah. Last year, it was reported that Suhakam received some 5,440 complaints from 2015 to 2020 – with many of the investigated cases being on citizenship issues in Sabah alone.

Pusat Komas understands that this is a difficult and multifaceted issue. However, avoiding the issue is not the resolution our country needs.

The state and federal government must take the initiative to face this issue head on, to prevent more generations of stateless children in Malaysia.

Moving people out of their homes only serves to move the problem elsewhere, as opposed to solving it. – Komas

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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