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Indonesians emerge from legal limbo in the Philippines

UNHCR initiative aims to help thousands at risk of statelessness

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Updated: March 17, 2016 02:53 AM GMT
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Indonesians emerge from legal limbo in the Philippines

Dinah Cornejo of the public attorney's office, left, assists the registration of Indonesians in Davao City, Philippines. (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

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Kampiong Monoke's parents crossed the Celebes Sea separating Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1940s. He was born in Sarangani, a coastal province in the southern Philippines, and grew up in the same poverty and isolation his parents sought to escape. 

Now 54, married and a father, Monoke took advantage of a program that seeks to resolve the citizenship woes of close to 9,000 persons of Indonesian descent living in seven Philippine coastal provinces and two cities.

He and his daughter Rachelle received their Indonesian citizenship papers on March 14 from Agus Majid, vice consul at the Indonesian consulate in Davao City. 

The event marked the launch of a weeklong formalization process for 664 persons of Indonesian descent, part of both countries' commitment to the U.N. refugee agency's I-Belong program that aims to help people at risk of statelessness.

The confirmation process culminates a mapping process that started in 2012 in the Philippines. In Indonesia, some 10,000 persons of Filipino descent await the start of a similar evaluation process.

Monoke is among the 128 program enrollees confirmed as Indonesians. The UNHCR said 538 persons of Indonesian descent have been confirmed as Filipinos.


Kampiong Monoke (center in green shirt) and his daughter, Rachelle Monoke (red shirt) become the first persons of Indonesian descent to receive citizenship papers in ceremonies held in Sarangani province in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)


Stranded status

The porous maritime borders between Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia have created shared cultural histories among nationals of the three states. Seafaring peoples have crisscrossed the seas between these countries through the centuries.

"Some of these people's families arrived in 1874," said Alex Bacarro, counsel for the Philippine Justice Department's Refugee and Stateless Persons Unit.

UNHCR country head Bernard Kerblat said most of the program's 8,745 beneficiaries live in remote hamlets and islands in Davao del Sur, Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, General Santos City, and Davao City.

Many clans have intermarried with locals through generations.

Indonesia passed a law in 1985 that withdrew the citizenship of Indonesians who lived abroad for more than five years without registering with their national authorities.

A 2006 amendment allowed reacquisition of citizenship. But with very little access to information and too poor to afford the travel and processing costs, most people hunkered in the shadows, unable to tap government services from either state.

"The current exercises seeks to clarify their status," said Kerblat. The process takes time, complicated by both countries' legal requirements, the beneficiaries' remote locations and economics.

"What is encouraging is the political positive attitude by both countries," Kerblat said. "It's an example of best practice in resolving the risk of statelessness."

A 2014 report by the UNHCR said many of those interviewed for the mapping process struggle with access to employment, livelihoods, education, and clean water.

"Given the uncertainty of their status, they suffer discriminatory treatment in employment because they are considered as aliens by most people," said Precious Pojas, a senior state counsel.

Farmers are also at risk of losing farms they have paid for because the Philippines allows only citizens to own lands.

Without nationality, they cannot enjoy their human rights, including the right to freedom of movement, to formal education, to access social services and to own property.

Challenges remain, said Bacarro.

Monoke could only complete registration for himself and daughter Rachelle, a teenager seeking higher education. Two other children will have to wait a few years for savings from the small family farm.

Philippine law requires foreign nationals to register yearly. While the cost is not high, the years of arrears computed for every month of delay make the process beyond the reach of many confirmed as Indonesians. 

Those confirmed as eligible for Philippine naturalization process also need to pay 100,000 pesos (US$2,100) as prescribed by law. 

Kerblat said very few can afford the fees as most belong to "the very low economic segment of the population."

The UNHCR country head said they have asked the Philippine government to consider lifting the naturalization and immigration fees and have received encouraging words.

Bacaro also shared plans to ask legislators from the covered provinces to push a law granting citizenship to the applicants. This would free them from having to pay the hefty administrative fees.

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