(07 May 2001) BP

KOTA KINABALU, Sun - Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) has urged the federal government to act decisively on some 70,000 Filipino political refugees here in Sabah by revoking their status or converting them to foreigners.

Its president cum Gaya member of parliament, Datuk Yong Teck Lee, stressed that the status is no longer applicable today on the refugees, who fled the civil war in Southern Philippines back in the 70's.

The refugees were placed under the UNHCR and later given exemption in the Passport Act.

"Our views officially, both as MP and SAPP in our memorandum to the federal government, is that the refugee status should be reviewed," Yong told reporters at the SAPP Mobile service unit at Gaya Street here this morning.

"The issue is long overdue. We have been pressing this both to the Philippines and Malaysian governments. They came in legally as refugees due to the situation back home but it makes them no longer relevant today," he reiterated.

"Therefore the programme should be an orderly return home of these refugees," he pointed out.

Yong noted the same topic was raised during his tenure as Chief Minister two years ago with chairman of the Autonomous Region of Mindanao, Nur Misuari, both in the Philippines and when he was visiting the state then.

Misuari had not voiced any reservation on the eventual return of the refugees and their children.

Yong noted that Misuari only talked about the programme involving land settlement, jobs, education and welfare of these people in their country to enable a permanent return.

However, he admitted that realistically it is not easy to move them back.

"Back to the issue of peace and stability in southern Philippines, we have been expecting Wisma Putra to play an even more effective role. But our stand on this (the refugees) is very clear".

Asked if the crux of the matter, that is, the "unlimited time stay" in Sabah under the Passport Act signed by the Home Ministry be revoked, Yong replied in the affirmative.

Consequently, he said if the revocation would technically make them all as illegal immigrants, as they came in not as illegals but as legal refugees.

He said SAPP had been pressing for a quick resolution, whereby a revocation of the status be replaced by another legal documentation, perhaps the (immigration) IM 13, where foreigners are allowed to remain here as long as they have proper jobs and hold work passes.

"But revocation without a substitute will immediately make them as illegals and that will put them in a difficult situation of an immediate return and the government will also be required to remove them immediately (under the law).

"If they have proper employment, I think the alternative will be to convert these groups from refugees to foreign workers so long as they have proper jobs.

"But this is a process that must start now. It cannot be done by mere technical revocation as they are already here for a long time.

Yong also noted that a simple revocation would not be good for anybody, including the government, as it is not a prudent way of managing a population of some 70,000.

Overall, he said everybody from members of parliament regardless of political affluence, state and federal governments, Manila and ASEAN should now resolve this issue once and for all.

"For a proper management of this issue, it will be best if the Malaysian government and Manila be jointly involved in the resettlement of refugees," Yong urged.

Asked on the allegation that while most of the refugees may be holding the IM 13, some are carrying Malaysian identity cards (ICs), he said: "If they have ICs assuming they have settled down, integrated with society and applied through the proper channel, that is a different category under the federal government's jurisdiction". - BP

Datuk Yong Teck Lee
Member of Parliament for P150 Gaya / State Assemblyman for N13 Likas

Study on Yong's Proposal: (8 May 2001)

KOTA KINABALU: The State Government is willing to study former Chief Minister Datuk Yong Teck Lee's suggestion to review or revoke the status of the Filipino political refugees under United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) here.

"The State Government will look into the suggestion and if appropriate I am sure it be taken up to the Federal Government," said Chief Minister Datuk Chong Kah Kiat.

At the moment, these people are still termed as political refugees and allowed to stay in Sabah, he said, when asked on the State Government's stand on the matter.

"We have been monitoring their stay and as I said before quite a number of them are legally employed," he told a press conference after officiating the Shell scholarship presentations at Pacific Sutera here Tuesday.

Chong stressed that the main problem dogging Sabah is not the original 70,000 migrants who arrived during the southern Philippines civil war in the 1970s but the so-called economic migrants who came in the 1980s and whose presence had kept getting bigger.

Yong had proposed that the refugees' status be converted to that of foreign workers and then issued with the 1M13 under the Immigration Department.

Yong who is also Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) President and Gaya MP, had said that the political refugees status was no longer applicable today.

He said if the refugees had their status revoked and were later given the 1M13 card, they could stay on in Sabah but as long as they have jobs.

"It is worth considering and there could be other alternatives such as whether we give them permanent stay, IM13 or workpass," he said.

The majority have declined to return home even after the situation in their hometown had improved and it is also feared that their numbers could have vastly increased in size since.

Chong said the number of these political refugees was reduced to some 50,000 after the regularisation in 1997.

"I think the crux of the whole problem is ensuring sufficient control of the immigrants coming from the border," he said, adding the situation is improving as security at the border had been beefed up. - DE


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