THE LAST OVERSEAS trip I made prior to my posting to Singapore was in February 2005, to an Indonesian province of Nunukan in Kalimantan.
Nunukan is a laid back border town, about 90 minutes’ ride by ferry from Tawau in the east coast of Sabah.
I was there, together with photographer Zamain Singkui and cameraman Suparmin Sumadi, to report on the plight of Indonesian workers or TKIs (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia) who were sent home by the Malaysian authorities for working illegally in Sabah. At that time, thousands of them were stranded in Nunukan either waiting for documentations to return to Sabah or to their villages throughout the archipelagos. It was one of those trips from which I wish I had written a better story.
I reproduce below one of the articles from that trip. Reading the story almost three years later, I couldn’t help but notice its lack of depth.
MALAYSIA REMAINS A MAGNET TO INDONESIAN FOREIGN WORKERS
By Jackson Sawatan
NUNUKAN (Indonesia): “Aku pulang dari rantau, bertahun-tahun di negeri orang, oh Malaysia (I am coming home, leaving behind years of life in a foreign land, O Malaysia)”.
If the mood is right, people can catch the blues just by listening to this melodious Indonesian pop song “Semalam Di Malaysia” or “A Night In Malaysia.”
The song is a lament about a man who is leaving a place with a heavy heart to return to his home country only to find things are no longer the same — childhood friends are nowhere to be seen, the past no longer present.
A ferry laden with passengers arriving at Nunukan Jetty
Make the song the background music accompanying the visual footages of Indonesian illegal workers disembarking from boats to return home, then flash it on television prime time, it is apt to evoke strong emotions among viewers.
Then, slot in the sad tales of the returning illegal immigrants and the lament is complete.
“Each time I saw on TV about TKI (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia or Indonesian labour force) returning home, with the song being played in the background, I feel sad in my heart.
“I often said to myself, if only things are good at home. they would not have ventured out in such a huge number to look for job in someone else’s country,” said taxi driver Slaiman, 38.
As he uttered this, about 9,800 Indonesian workers are still in this frontier town, waiting for their documentation to be processed to take the first ferry out to Tawau, Sabah.
Not much positive news filtering in here about how their countrymen or countrywomen were doing in Malaysia, except that they did get a good pay if the wages were paid, that is.
A member of Satgas or task force coordinating team handling returning TKIs here, said he had heard countless “inhumane treatment” by the employers and enforcement personnel.
He said: “I’ve heard many complaints from the TKIs about how they were chased by the Malaysian authorities and when they run away to hide, the pursuing personnel went into their houses and took away their valuables,” he said.
Despite the negative reports about the brush off with the Malaysian authorities and employees allegedly not paying their wages, Malaysia remains a “magnet” to Indonesian foreign workers.
In Nunukan alone, about 50 to 500 TKIs are leaving the Tunon Taka Port here daily since January to work in Sabah.
Some are so desperate to work out of Indonesia that they were willing to take the risk of entering Sabah illegally using fake immigration documents.
Last week, Nunukan police arrested three locals for alleged involvement in a syndicate falsifying Indonesian and Malaysian travel documents.
Seized from the trio were fake Malaysian and Indonesian immigration stamps.
Illegal workers proved to be a headache in Malaysia as they kept coming back in search of employment here.
The Indonesian authorities and foreign workers recruitment agencies had the experience of what it was like to handle immigrants, albeit on a smaller scale.
On Jan 12, more than 250 Indonesian workers here, who had earlier returned from Sabah, staged a protest for what they alleged as inhumane treatment in their own country.
They complained of the long process it took to have their documentation processed, forcing them to stay extended period in Nunukan.
Documentation process is taking up to two weeks to complete, sometimes longer than that.
The TKIs also claimed the food given to them by recruitment agencies were not fit for human consumption.
They were reported to have paid up to RM1,200 or Rp2.8 million to the recruitment agents to finance the whole documentation process and for their stay in temporary centre houses belonging to the agencies in Nunukan.
“Hanya Orang Sembarang Buang Sampah Sembarang”
A check at several of the temporary houses however showed the situation at the centre had somewhat improved now following the departure to Sabah of about 20,000 TKIs since the past few weeks.
In fact, the situation in Nunukan this year was way better than in 2002 when the authorities in Sabah launched a massive operation code-named “Ops Nyah Bersepadu” to flush out illegal immigrants in the state.
“I don’t see much problem this time around…people still crowding Nunukan but this is nothing compared to 2002,” said Slaiman, who recalled about how difficult it was to drive his taxi around town then.
“At that time, there were just simply too many people, they were everywhere like ants. Many of them even slept on pavements,” he said.
[Published in Bernama, Feb 12, 2005]