BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi—A female refugee from Sabah died while giving birth in a hospital in the eastern Malaysian state on Monday after failing to get passage for her and her family to Tawi-Tawi.
Dr. Rowell Quiogue, who attended to the refugees before they left Turtle Island confirmed the death of a 33-year-old woman, who had a heart ailment, while undergoing cesarean procedure in Sabah.
He identified the refugee as Niharaja Jailana, a native of Zamboanga who worked in Sandakan for years.
Dr. Sukarno Asri, provincial health officer of Tawi-Tawi, said Jailana and her family had been waiting for days in Taganak on Turtle Island for a vessel that would ferry them to Bongao when she went into labor.
Asri said the health workers in the area and the local government decided to transport Jailana back to Sandakan because of the lack of facilities on the island.
It was also impractical to bring Jailana to Bongao because the trip, some 500 kilometers by sea, would take at least 17 hours, Asri said.
The distance between Sabah and Turtle Island is 40 kilometers, he said.
Jailana gave birth to twins, who, according to Asri, were alive but in a very critical condition.
No food shortage
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas was at the port in Bongao to welcome the refugees when the Philippine Navy ship that carried them from Turtle Island arrived Wednesday morning.
The ship carrying 523 refugees left Turtle Island at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
After checking the public market in Bongao, Roxas announced that there was no food shortage in the town.
Roxas said the National Food Authority (NFA) had a rice stock of about 15,000 sacks.
Tawi-Tawi consumes an estimated 2,500 sacks daily, he said.
If more rice would be needed, Roxas said the government would get it from other cities and regions to ensure the stability of the food supply in Tawi-Tawi, the destination of most refugees from Sabah.
Gov. Sadikul Sahali said the local government was waiting for a Navy boat, loaded with 1,000 sacks of rice, to arrive from Zamboanga City.
“We don’t have that much supply because traders from Malaysia can’t get through,” Sahali said.
More refugees coming
More Filipinos are expected to arrive from Sabah, not only refugees but also illegals being deported by the Malaysian authorities.
Raul Hernandez, spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), told reporters on Wednesday that a “considerable” number of Filipinos had told a Philippine humanitarian mission and consular team in Lahad Datu town in Sabah that they wanted to be repatriated.
A three-member team from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) reinforced the mission on Tuesday.
In a statement issued by the DFA, Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya said the Philippine embassy was “exerting utmost efforts to reach out to as many Filipinos in eastern Sabah at the soonest time possible.”
Malaya said the embassy was “making arrangements to repatriate those who express the desire to do so.”
Malaya said, however, that the teams were still waiting for approval from local authorities for full access to all areas in Sabah, although he reported that the teams had located Filipino evacuees.
Together with the DSWD team, the mission visited the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) plantation again and met an official, who promised to help the mission get access to other evacuation centers and gave assurance that the Filipinos were safe and continued to be employed in the plantations in the area, Malaya said.
No reply from Malaysia
He said the Felda official reported that there were 451 workers and 350 dependents in the plantation, doing mostly upkeep and maintenance work.
The officials said there were 1,464 evacuees in four of the centers at the Cenderawasih Gym, Embara Budi, Fajar Harapan and Gemalapura and they were Filipino, Indonesian, Timorese and local workers.
Hernandez said the government had yet to receive a reply from Malaysia to the Philippine request to see 97 Filipinos reportedly detained on suspicion of links to the sultanate of Sulu’s attempt to retake Sabah.
The DFA also still has to ascertain the exact number of Filipinos killed in the fighting between the Sulu sultan’s followers and Malaysian security forces, he said.
“[To this day] we still don’t know where they are detained,” Hernandez said.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman on Wednesday said that the government was gathering sworn statements from refugees for the filing of a protest over reported abuses committed by Malaysian police against Filipinos in Sabah.
Social welfare officers are interviewing two refugees who gave information to the Inquirer about the abuses, DSWD officials said.
Soliman said President Aquino had given instructions for the gathering of evidence and then the DFA would recommend what the government should do.
The kind of protest that would be filed would depend on “the kind of abuse” and whether it would be lodged with the International Criminal Court would depend on the DFA, she said.
Expecting the flight of more Filipinos from Sabah, the military has deployed more vessels to the Sulu Sea.
Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said on Wednesday that the Navy sent nine more vessels to waters between Sulu and Sabah, bringing to 34 the military ships patrolling the area.
“We need more ships in that area because we are intensifying the government’s humanitarian mission,” Burgos said.
Meanwhile, civic groups from both the Philippines and Malaysia have banded together and asked the governments of the two countries to resolve the Sabah conflict through dialogue instead of armed confrontations.
Around 200 groups from across the globe have signed a statement prepared by the Philippines-based Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), urging President Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, and Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III to declare a “humanitarian ceasefire” and open talks to resolve the conflict.
IID members trooped to the Malaysian Embassy in Manila on Wednesday to ask the Malaysian ambassador to forward the joint Philippine-Malaysian statement to Najib in Kuala Lumpur.
The Malaysian human rights commission asked the Kuala Lumpur government on Wednesday to respect the rights of Filipinos detained in connection with the Sabah crisis.
The human rights body known in Malaysia by its acronym Suhakam also expressed deep concern about the safety and well-being of all Sabahans affected by the crisis, including those who have been displaced by the fighting.
“The commission hopes that the government will continue to ensure that the basic needs and welfare as well as other humanitarian assistance for the affected groups are given primary consideration in its effort to overcome the crisis,” said Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, chair of Suhakam.
Senators Francis Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano, both administration candidates in May’s midterm elections, said on Wednesday that DFA officials should make representations with their Malaysian counterparts to verify the reported abuses against Filipinos in Sabah.
Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño, also running for the Senate in the May elections, asked the President to temporarily stay away from the campaign so he could deal with the Sabah crisis.
“President Aquino should take time off from campaigning for the Liberal Party and show the people that he is taking the matter seriously,” Casiño said.—With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, Jerome Aning, TJ Burgonio, Marlon Ramos, Cathy Yamsuan and Jaymee Gamil in Manila; and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao