Description of the disaster
Since the 1970s, migrants from Mindanao have migrated to Sabah fleeing conflict and economic deprivation. Subsequent large-scale returns and deportations from Sabah, in response to the policies of Malaysian authorities, have been continuous for several decades. A large-scale movement of people from Sabah, Malaysia, to the Philippines recommenced on 30 June 2020 through which 5,300 Filipinos were expected to return in groups of up to 400 people in 15-day intervals. The first group of 395 people arrived by sea on 18 July 2020. Zamboanga City, where a PRC Chapter was present, served as a processing area for the returning Filipinos from Sabah (REFS). Returnees were tested for COVID-19 in Malaysia pre-departure and underwent quarantine upon their arrival to the Philippines. Quarantine was conducted in either Zamboanga City or in the returnee's home provinces. The Returnees had been in detention in Sabah for between six to 12 months pre-return.
The total number of arrivals into the Philippines included in this operation was 2,119 individuals with batches of returnees arriving in the Philippines as follows:
18 July 2020 - arrival of batch #1 with 395 individuals.
29 July 2020 - arrival of batch #2 with 394 individuals.
13 August 2020 - arrival of batch #3 with 400 individuals.
28 August 2020 - arrival of batch #4 with 379 individuals.
25 September 2020 - arrival of batch #5 with 400 individuals.
12 November 2020 – arrival of batch #6 with 151 individuals.
There was a pause of arrivals between 12 November 2020 until March 2021, with the arrival process reestablished after this date. The pause was due to the cancellation of the scheduled deportation due to the rising cases of COVID-19 in Sabah, Malaysia.
The returnees were comprised of men, women and children, and while some were initially in family groups, many returned individually. Disaggregated data was collected and summarized in the following table.
Since 1970s, migrants from Mindanao have migrated to Sabah fleeing conflict and economic deprivation. Many of the returnees have resided in Sabah for many years or born in Sabah and had established lives and families in Malaysia. Some of the returnees no longer speak the language/s of Mindanao. The main driver of the migration from Mindanao is the perception of better livelihood options in Sabah, together with security concerns in some parts of Mindanao that have further challenged peoples’ livelihoods.
While the process of returning Filipinos from Sabah has been ongoing for several years, this action is of concern due to the large number of returnees in a short period of time and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic and associated quarantine measures and travel restrictions interrupted the routine repatriation process. They also required the Filipino returnees to remain in detention facilities in Malaysia.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the requirement for quarantine mean the Malaysian and Philippine authorities agreed that only Filipinos with a family connection in Mindanao would be part of the repatriation, and people with no remaining family/kinship connections in the Philippines would remain in Malaysia through the COVID-19 pandemic period. The presence of COVID-19 in Sabah highlighted the need for supporting a carefully managed repatriation process.
The Philippine government formed a taskforce to oversee the repatriation and the Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, and the Bureau of Quarantine served as lead agencies of the inter-agency group. The Philippine government required all returning Filipinos to undergo COVID-19 testing and a 14-day quarantine to control the local transmission of the virus, and the return of groups of people in 15-day intervals reflects this protocol.
Based on assessments conducted through key informant interviews with returnees who had arrived, their immediate needs included food, essential household items (blankets and sleeping mats), WASH (jerry cans, hygiene kits, and hand-washing facilities), health inputs (mosquito nets, IECs, first aid and psychosocial support services) including psychological first aid and Restoring Family Links services.
In April 2017 IFRC launched a DREF for CHF 72,088 to support the PRC in assisting Filipino returnees from Sabah, Malaysia. The sinking of a vessel that previously transported the returnees prompted suspension of repatriations in September 2016, which led to a backlog of approximately 7,000 undocumented Filipino migrants in Sabah, and a rapid increase in returns when transport was again available. The DREF supported 4,446 Filipino returnees from Sabah with essential household items and welfare services. As PRC chapters had no previous experience working with migrant issues such as the Sabah returnees, PRC with IFRC developed a training manual to guide staff and volunteers about roles and responsibilities for responding to migration and displacement issues, followed by national and chapter level training with staff and volunteers. Since then, PRC chapters in Mindanao continued engaging with returnees with basic services through their chapter budgets.