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By Nigel Aw

Refugee details fast track path to citizenship

A refugee from Philippines said he and many others were made Malaysian citizens without them pursuing it, the royal commission of inquiry (RCI) on Sabah's immigration problem heard today.

Ismail Balaka said he received his identity card three months after a mysterious group visited his settlement in Kinarut to take down their particulars. He could not remember when it happened.

"A group of people came in an unmarked vehicle and gathered everyone at the village hall. It was during day time but I cannot remember the date and year.

"They asked us to fill forms, took our thumbprints and photographs. At that time I did not know what it was for but a friend said it was for identity cards," Ismail said.

azlanPrior to receiving the identity card, he held a settlement card issued by the settlement unit of the Chief Minister's Department.

Ismail acknowledged that he had never had IMM13 (Pas Lawatan Pelarian), green identity card (temporary resident) or red identity card (permanent resident) before obtaining the blue identity card.

The chain is the pathway for a refugee's naturalisation as a Malaysian citizen.

Ismail arrived in Sabah on a fishing boat 1975 from Pulau Ubian, Philippines, fleeing the civil conflict there.

'Registered as voter'

Subsequently, the witness said, he registered as a voter and voted for the first time under the rule of then Chief Minister Harris Salleh, which was between 1976 and 1985. Since then, he has voted in five elections.

Ismail was one of seven refugees called to testify before the RCI today. Several of the refugees still hold red identity cards and IMM13 documents, but a handful who arrived in Sabah in the 1970s already have blue identity cards.

Another refugee with a blue identity card is Hatta Ghani, who arrived from the Philippines in 1976, by boat with more than 50 others.

Hatta followed the necessary procedures and eventually got his blue identity card 12 years later.

After, that, he too immediately registered as a voter.

"No one registered for me, I went to apply on my own," he said.

'Some are in the army'

One refugee from the same village, Abdul Ayung, who entered Sabah in 1980 and still relies on the IMM13 document, said a number of those who already have blue identity cards have joined the civil service to become teachers, and some even join the army.

Another person who testified today was United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative Paul Allen Vernon, who explained the body's cooperation with the Sabah government in settling Filipino refugees in the state between 1977 to 1987.

Quoting records, Vernon estimated that more than 60,000 refugees were settled in the state during that period.

He said it was important that the government provided the refugees with some form of documentation or a path a citizenship, as those without them were likely to have a worst prospect, on top of the problems the next generation would face.

"The Filipino Muslim population has been here for 28 to 34 years and their links with Mindanao are weak at best. It will be logical for them to have some kind of integration that is consistent with the immigration laws.

"If the children do not have documentation, they cannot go to school. Ten years down the line, we see a serious risk to the children, for if they do not get primary education, it will be hard to fix that.

"If they enter school only when they are 15 or 16, it will be difficult to acquire literacy, the consequences are serious," Vernon said.

A total of 24 witnesses took the stand during the fourth day of the inquiry today.

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