Malaysian Authorities Evict Over 500 Nomadic People in Sabah

During the week of June 6, more than 500 nomadic people, known as the Bajau Laut, were evicted from their homes in Malaysia’s Sabah state as the government increases action against undocumented migrants, Reuters said. Unverified videos obtained by Reuters showed structures along the coastline being pulled down, burned, and destroyed by Malaysian officials. Police sources deny that they burned structures, claiming that the Bajau Laut burned down their own houses to gain sympathy on social media. At least some community members were given eviction notices prior to the actions of the authorities, but many could not understand the notices or had no other option but to remain.

Sabah’s minister for tourism, Christina Liew, defended the actions of the authorities in a June 7 statement, saying that, “the sovereignty of the country’s laws in this issue must be upheld.” Mukmin Natang, the founder of Sabah social advocacy group, Borneo Komrad, told Reuters “the Bajau Laut have been living in the area since before there were official borders. The actions being taken against them is just cruel.” Malaysian news outlet, Sinar Daily, reported that the director of NGO Mandiri, Wong Kueng Hui, compared the eviction of and discrimination against the Bajau Laut with that of the Rohingya people, who have endured brutal violence at the hands of the Myanmar military for their ethnicity and religion.

The Bajau Laut have not been provided with alternative housing options and Malaysian authorities have made no distinction between the situation of the Bajau Laut and undocumented migrants. The evictions will only serve to increase ethnic tensions within Malaysia, and isolate a people group whose culture and lifestyle do not fit within the modern framework of nation-states. If Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s goal, as stated by Wong, is to eradicate extreme poverty in Malaysia, steps must be taken to support impoverished groups regardless of their ethnicity. The Bajau Laut deserve to be integrated into the modern legal system while retaining their traditional culture and practices. In 2020, Anwar, who was not Prime Minister at the time, condemned Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, as well as Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya people, while ignoring ethnic violence and racism in his own country.

The Bajau Laut are a nomadic ethnic group that have been recorded living near the waters between Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia for centuries. Many are born without identification or citizenship in any one state, and usually do not understand the legal systems of modern states. Because of their statelessness, they often do not have access to basic amenities such as education and healthcare. According to Human Rights Watch, “Malaysian law makes all irregular entry and stay in the country a criminal offense,” and there are no exceptions made for groups such as refugees or asylum-seekers. The Center for Strategic and International Studies says that Malaysia has historically implemented racist and violent actions toward undocumented migrants, particularly refugees. Because of the loose legal definition of “irregular entry,” the Bajau Laut are grouped with all other undocumented migrants. According to Human Rights Watch, the Malaysian government has increased its action against irregular migrants in recent years, detaining more than 45,000 since May of 2020.

Malaysia’s actions against the Bajau Laut continue the troubling conflation of stateless people, refugees, and others with illegal entrants into the country. Malaysian minorities were hopeful at the historic 2022 election of Prime Minister Anwar, a former Malay nationalist who has since called for equal treatment of ethnic minorities in Malaysia. Events such as the eviction of the Bajau Laut undermine his promises and continue cycles that have caused ethnic division and strife. The Malaysian government must work to protect the Bajau Laut and other minorities and seek ethical and sustainable solutions for stateless people, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

Benjamin Bigcraft