WALKING into an immigrant colony can be a scary experience.
It’s not because there are no good people in those areas but chances are, you’ll encounter the bad ones.
Even the most seasoned member of the security forces will not go in alone. Outsiders may be greeted with smiles, but there also those giving the look that will surely make one worry.
There is a sense of insecurity as it is easy to get lost in the maze-like roads and footpaths. Elements of a foreign lifestyle are easy to notice, along with dirty surroundings.
The colonies exist because of the lack of enforcement and political will of the authorities in the past. Many have mushroomed over the years to become homes for immigrants or hideouts for criminals.
But recent security operations in the west coast indicate that the government has no plans to let immigrants “rule their roost”.
On Valentine’s Day, security forces swooped down on a settlement of Filipino immigrants in Telipok, Kota Kinabalu. They deployed tanks (yes, tanks), armoured vehicles and more than a thousand uniformed officers for the task.
It was an integrated effort involving the police and army, as well as the Immigration, National Registration and Health Departments. Together, they trooped into the colony to weed out bad hats and undocumented immigrants.
The crackdown began in the east coast of the state last year. More than 500 people were detained by the Immigration Department and police found a pistol and 39 bullets in the following days.
Sabah police chief Commissioner Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun said the colony near Telipok township was a notorious drug haven. Its secluded location in a valley made it a perfect roost for junkies. In the operation, more than 5,000 people were screened and 1,500 houses searched.
The colony had existed since the 1970s and was initially occupied by Filipino refugees. Back then, they were issued with a temporary visit pass known as the IMM13 by the Immigration Department.
The number of residents has since grown because many of the refugees’ children were born there and the place currently houses the second or even third generation of immigrants.
Apart from Telipok, there are four other refugee colonies in Sabah. They are Kinarut in Papar, Kampung Bahagia in Sandakan, Kampung Selamat in Semporna and Kampung Hidayat in Tawau.
Many illegal immigrants have moved into the colonies to blend in with those who are in the state legally. This has aroused suspicion in the eyes of the authorities and the public.
In the past, the authorities exerted little control over the colonies except with the help of community leaders. In Telipok, for instance, the immigrants have monopolised the illegal taxi business and street stalls.
Albert Bingkasan, a politician who lives nearby, said locals no longer command the economy there.
“Their numbers are far more than the locals,” he said of the immigrant population in Telipok, which is about 20km from the state capital.
“That area is a time bomb because of its secluded location. I have nothing against immigrants who abide by our laws as they are an integral part of our economy, but not those who are here illegally.”
The task of ridding the state of illegal immigrants, who mostly live in squatter colonies, is by no means easy. Utility company Sabah Electricity Sdn Bhd estimates there are more than 100 squatter colonies in the state.
Last year, the government deported 27,769 illegal immigrants, the highest ever since 1990. According to the Sabah National Security Council, 529,941 foreigners were deported in the last 15 years.
State Security Secretary Rodzi Md Saad attributed the drastic increase to the aggressive integrated operations carried out since last year.
“The figure shows the government commitment in resolving the large presence of illegal immigrants in Sabah.”
The formation of the Eastern Sabah Security Command has also left a strong impact.
“The government will not rest on its laurels in efforts to rid illegal immigrants from the state, and will not compromise with any party to preserve peace, progress and prosperity for the people,” said Rodzi.
Roy Goh is NST’s Sabah bureau chief