There are over 10 million Filipinos working overseas, so chances are, if you ask a Filipino – any Filipino – if he has a relative or knows someone living abroad, the answer you’ll get is a yes. Ask me: I have an aunt who is a doctor in New York, cousins in Canada and Taiwan, friends in the Middle East. And each migrant – each member of the so-called Filipino diaspora – has a story.
I met 24-year old Darwisa Mibahar on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Sam, as she’s known to her family and friends, is from the island of Sulu in the Southern Philippines. But she’s spent many years of her life in Sabah. She’s worked on palm oil plantations and when I met her, she was working at a construction site together with two of her younger brothers.
Despite their hard work, they barely made enough for a decent meal. They were living with about half a dozen other people in what I can only describe as a shoebox of a house within a compound of mostly Filipino migrants – ILLEGAL migrants, that is.
It wasn’t easy living as an illegal, Sam told me then, but it was becoming riskier by the day. When I met her, the political atmosphere was tense. Militants from the Southern Philippines had just invaded a village in Lahad Datu. A standoff with Malaysian forces ensued, shots were fired, and in the end, dozens of lives were lost. The militants blended in with the local population, so suddenly, Malaysian authorities were watching every Filipino very closely.
It was then that Sam decided it was time for her and her brothers to go home. And we decided to follow them in what we’d find out later was a harrowing journey. They came to Sabah illegally, they could only get out illegally.
We drove for about 10 hours from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. The next day, a small fishing boat took us to the middle of the sea, where a cargo boat – known in the Philippines as a “lantsa” – was waiting to take passengers back to the Southern Philippines. When night fell, we were asked to turn all lights off, turn our cellphones off, and keep quiet. We were about to sail, but we needed to be discreet enough to not be spotted by the Malaysian Coast Guard. (What baffles me though is that despite being told that, there was a Malaysian police vessel almost just across our boat the whole time.)
It wasn’t my first time on a “lantsa,” but we sailed for hours and hours and hours. Night turned into day; day turned into night. There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to lay down, except for the cold, hard, insect-infested wooden ground inside the vessel. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded. Before leaving Sandakan, I saw at least two vessels bound for the Philippines that had people sitting on the roof.
After more than 30 hours, we reached Jolo, the capital of Sulu. We spent the night there, and the next day, we drove another three or four hours to Sam’s village. Finally, they were home. Unfortunately for myself and my cameraman, we were about to embark on another journey back to Sabah, the same way we came to Sulu.
We had to - or we’d be illegals in Malaysia ourselves. But this time around, it was twice as difficult. It took us five long days before a crew allowed us on; most of them were apprehensive about taking on a television news crew. When we were finally on a boat, there was no space for us but on the exposed upper deck. And when it rained, we got soaked. When huge waves rocked the boat almost like it was about to turn upside down, we had to hang on really tight. I shut my eyes the whole time. And when the sea finally calmed down and darkness turned into light, I saw my white shirt – and my skin – literally turn black. Turns out smoke was blowing directly on me the whole time.
A day later, we reached the Philippines’ Turtle Islands. We were told the cargo vessel could no longer travel, as security in Malaysia was tight and the water approaching Sandakan was shallow. So we took a small motorized fishing boat to Sandakan and true enough, as we were closing in on the coast, we hit some very shallow waters. The boatmen took us around a mangrove instead, and at that point, I felt nervous. I didn’t know if we could trust the people we were with.
We landed in a shanty community above a filthy, muddy network of canals. There was now a real possibility that we could get kidnapped, I thought. There have been cases of Abu Sayyaf-linked militants capturing their victims in Sabah before taking them to either Sulu or Basilan, their strongholds in the Southern Philippines.
We stopped near what looked like a relatively big, sturdy tree, and then we climbed our way up to the stilts that were holding the shanties together. Instead of harming us though, a couple of men there helped us carry our luggage and equipment while we were balancing and making our way very slowly along the stilt walkways. And as I approached the main road, I realized then just how uncertain and perilous a journey like this really is for migrants like Sam. Yet oftentimes, they have little choice but to make the journey. They risk their lives for a little luck, for some money, so that they can put food on their family’s table.
This is the story of one Filipino migrant worker. A story that’s no stranger to many other Filipino migrant workers.
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