Undocumented and stateless, Hajah was “deported” to the Philippines despite being born and raised in Sabah. She arrives home after a strenuous three years away, yet is still in search of an identity and belonging.
Photos by Natasha Sim

In 2017, Hajah* finally made her way back home to Pulau Gaya after three years of exile in the Philippines. 

The 31-year-old was arrested sometime in 2013, then housed at one of the four temporary detention centres in Sabah. 

“I was captured in Labuan during an raid operation, after that was sent to the Kimanis detention centre. I prayed for the day that I could finally be out, especially during the time I was at Rumah Merah. It was hard.”

Cramped cells aside, food was scarce at the detention centre. But luckily there was an officer who had sympathised with her, lending Hajah a pack of Maggie noodles or two.  

After three months at Kimanis alongside her four young children, she was called out abruptly as part of the convoy to be “shipped back to” the Philippines. Her children then were aged 7, 6, 1 and the youngest at just a few months old. 

Left without a choice, Hajah set off on the two-night journey with her kids to Zambaonga, a city in Southern Philippines. There, she was yet again, in her words, “berkurung” locked up for three years. 

Rigid movement

Before nations drew lines of demarcation, Sabah depended on porous borders to make up its history and diversity. Hajah’s community, the Bajau Ubian, have been sailing the ocean between Sabah and the Philippines for food, income and security for generations. 

As laws of the land evolved at the helm of modernisation, the story of migration too became more rigid. Now, it goes something like this: when someone like Hajah is born without documents, they get detained by immigration and then deported to the Philippines, only to come back again to where they can call home. The story is so common that it’s become a trope.

In Malaysia, Sabah tops the list in the number of “illegal immigrants” according to a  2020 report by local think-tank Institute for Development Studies (IDS). For every boat intercepted by border officials, many of those evicted will eventually make their way back into Sabah through what locals call jalan tikus or rat trails”, infamous hidden paths beneath shadows or unseen trails that only rats would walk. 

“Illegals” would be the catch-all term to describe most, if not all of those like Hajah. Without a country that recognises their existence, Hajah and her children are stateless as with many more others.

Hajah’s home of Kg Ubian, Pulau Gaya

I met Hajah through a friend and out of curiosity, I asked if I could visit her home and kampung. She agreed.

On the day we left for Pulau Gaya, Hajah led us to the illegal jetty behind the city’s central market. We got on a perahu named Boss Baby, after the cartoon character that’s painted on its bow.

But just moments before we took off, the boatman Uncle Rainbow* alerted Hajah of the official marine boats patrolling the waters. 

The actual journey would have taken a mere 10 minutes. Yet, we needed to wait for the fear to leave, and officials to clear.

Nanti kena tegur ka apa… Kita tidak mahu juga bah,” he said. 

“We don’t want to get in trouble.”

Boss Baby flanked by other unlicensed speedboats

Mother & daughter 

We arrived at Hajah’s family home first. The stilt house had two bedrooms. In the mainroom, we sat cross-legged on the floor. The space was loosely decorated with very few old photographs. 

There, I spoke to Hajah’s mother Mak Cik Fauziah* who shared her story of making a similar perilous journey: crossing straits and dark waters to get to Sabah. 

The 90-year-old grandmother recalled her flight from Jolo, a southwest island from the Philippines in the 1980s with her late husband and two young children “sebab di situ ada tembak-menembak”. A lot of shooting.

Hajah was quick to fill in the gaps of her mother’s muddled memories. There was war, and the family needed an escape from poverty and gunshots. One thing Mak Cik Fauziah was very clear about, “di sini Sabah aman.” It’s peaceful here in Sabah. 

“Back in the Philippines… [those fighting] were cruel, they would look at women and children and shoot without any hesitation,” Mak Cik added. 

I asked Mak Cik if she had any intention of ever going back to see Pilipinas and she said no. “Especially at this age. Even when I was younger, I don’t think I have ever wanted to,” she said.

After all, Mak Cik Fauziah raised all nine children in Sabah. Out of the nine, two have even gotten their identification cards (ICs). What I did not expect was the tears from Mak Cik Fauziah when she spoke about Hajah’s younger sisters.

Broken family ties

Yang paling bikin sakit hati yang itu dua anak [with IC] kasi biar saja saya di sini. Bodoh! Tidak pandai tolong! Itu yang bikin saya menangis teruk macam ni,” Mak Cik Fauziah said.

I soon learned from Hajah that her two younger sisters were “adopted” by their uncle in their early years. The uncle at that time had already obtained proper documents and an IC. 

According to Hajah, her uncle had loaned his IC to her mother so that she could give birth to her two younger sisters at a proper clinic, hence obtaining birth papers. 

Later on, her uncle would “tanggung” or become responsible for the upbringing of those two sisters.  

“How did your pak cik get his IC to tanggung your sisters?” I asked. 

Ada ba itu… Diorang bagi IC peruntukan dulu. Tu la aku tanya kenapa mamaku tidak berusaha untuk mendapat IC tu. Dia tidak fikir masa depan anak-anak dia,” she answered. 

“They allocated ICs back then. So I did ask, why did my mother not work hard to get that IC. She didn’t seem to think about her children’s future.”

The fraught relationship between Hajah and her mother was in part because of her younger sisters. Because they had papers, they went on to receive their own identification cards and both have now migrated to Peninsular Malaysia.

Having received official status, they estranged themselves from the family, leaving their mother heartbroken. Hajah, too, had become bitter because of her mother’s inability to look past the situation.

Bukan mahu ungkit (not to bring it up), but I wish my mother had fought harder to get us our papers, instead of just for my younger sisters,” Hajah told me tearfully when I met her again a couple of weeks later. 

It was this emotional moment from Hajah that made me realise that while her life may have been hard up till now, it was her relationships that she fought hardest for. 

“Yang aku punya mama pun aku kasi kan duit yang aku mampu. Tapi itu lah, yang dua yang tiada di sisi dia tu yang dia fikir, tapi anak yang di depan tu dia inda pandang.”

For Hajah, she’s always been by her mother’s side. But her own mother seems to only care about the two daughters with ICs that are now gone.

“I give my mother money when I can afford to. In that way I support her. After all she did raise me,” Hajah says.

Where she differs from her mother, Hajah says, is that she is intent on getting her children official documents.

“I want my children to have a better life than me, as all parents do,” she said.

Statelessness is inherited 

“When I was arrested in Labuan, they took my children’s birth certificates away,” Hajah said. In Malaysia, all children born here are granted a right to birth registration. Those registration papers gave Hajah a glimmer of hope that her children may be recognised by the State.

But birth papers do not not automatically provide those children a pathway to citizenship.  According Anne Balthazar, Malaysia practices a mainly Jus Sanguinis principle of nationality. Anne is Founder of Advocates for Non-discrimination and Access to Knowledge or ANAK, a not-for-profit organisation that works with stateless children. 

Following Jus Sanguinis indicates Malaysia’s reservation to accord children a right to acquire nationality immediately at birth, contrary to the international Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) principles. 

Jus Sanguinis means a child’s right to nationality is determined by whether their parents are permanent residents or citizens of Malaysia,” said Anne. The principle is the reason so many children in Sabah remain invisible. How many? Anne says the number could be upwards of 60,000. 

To make matters worse, Malaysia does not recognize stateless persons on paper. The country did not ratify the 1951 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, nor the 1954 UN Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons. Unless policies change, Hajah, her children and her grandchildren will continue to live on the sidelines. 


“When I was in the Philippines, the officials there wrote a formal letter stating that I have no living relatives, hence no connection to the Philippines. That’s when they released me. They gave me 200,000 pesos upon my release,” said Hajah. 

“My children were fed, clothed and schooled while we were there, but I still needed to go back to Sabah.” To her loved ones.  

Eventually, Hajah found her way to Pulau Sitingkai, a well-known border island to cross over to Semporna, Sabah. She paid 10,000 pesos (~RM862.03) for an unlicensed boat to ferry her and her children across the waters.

“I think the boatman kesian took pity on me and my children. So, he agreed. But halfway through the journey, Malaysian maritime officials stopped us. They took away my letter,” she said. 

“They even asked me, betul kah kau orang Sabah?,” she added. “Are you really Sabahan?” She insisted on her identity as a Sabahan and they let her go.

But they took her travel pass: a small piece of evidence that could prove her status as “one of us”, “kita-kita bah ini”. I asked her if they ever gave an explanation to why they took away those papers. She replied with a shrug, “Tiada dorang kasi tahu. Sebenarnya itu pas jalanan saja ba itu.” 

Hajah’s old resident card. The legitimacy of this kind of identification is questionable.

Searching and longing 

Hajah tells me that she’s always looking for that “something.”

Selalu aku solat kan untuk mendapat yang itu… sesuatu”, she says.  “I always pray to receive… something.”

She won’t mention what that “sesuatu” or “something” is by its name, but I assume it to be official papers and all that it represents: an identity, rights, social mobility, education, access and opportunities — freedom.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the persons mentioned.

This story was collected during an aid relief mission to Pulau Gaya with non-profit organisation ANAK (Advocates for Non-discrimination and Knowledge), in collaboration with Sabah Human Rights Centre (SHRC).