Davao Occidental, Philippines – On the screen flashed Indonesia’s world-renowned destinations. They were told if they could name one, a cash prize awaits. But many were clueless about what they were seeing, or worse, what the man – who introduced himself as their country’s representative – was talking about.
“Who among you here can speak Indonesian?” Berlian Napitulu, Indonesian Consul General to the Philippines, asked the crowd of some 60 people.
There were 16 hands raised in the air. The rest spoke nothing but local languages on the Philippine island of Balut. Some, including Pidinsia Barahama Pareda, could only speak Sangirese, the language of her people, the Sangirs.
Pareda could not recall how old she is. What she knows, however, is that she was born in 1960, a year written on her birth certificate, a document she received on November 16 along with more than 100 other Sangir people – or what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls “people of Indonesian descent (PID)”.
Back in the day, local officials said Indonesians like her could not apply for a birth certificate as they were not Filipinos.
“We were told that a baptismal certificate was enough,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview.
But over the years, she said, local officials eventually began asking them to register. So in 2005, when one of the village leaders offered to “arrange” their birth certificates for $3.90 each, she gave him money. But since then there was never news about the document, while the rest of her neighbours have long gotten theirs.
“It was already paid in full,” she said in Sangirese.
On the day she finally received her birth certificate, she had to be accompanied by her son-in-law, Walter Manabung, 39. Pareda barely spoke Cebuano nor Filipino, two languages in the Philippines, despite having been living on Balut all her life. Both her parents, too, have settled here long before she was born. Their main livelihood is harvesting coconuts for copra and fishing – just like many other Indonesian Sangirs living on the island.
Balut, including Sarangani, are two major islands that comprise the Sarangani municipality in the province of Davao Occidental. A huge concentration of the total 8,745 recorded people of Indonesian descent come from these islands, according to UNHCR research from 2016.
They are third generation Indonesians whose ancestors, according to historical accounts, come from the neighbouring Sangihe Islands in North Sulawesi. One common story of their migration to the Philippines was that when their fishermen forefathers saw these islands, they went back from Sangihe – this time taking their families with them.
This occurred long before the Philippines and Indonesia began establishing boundaries between them. Thus, those crisscrossing the waters of Sulawesi and the Philippines were eventually subject to border rules imposed by the two countries.
In the case of the Indonesians in the Philippines, they were to secure an Alien Certificate of Registration (ACR) that gives them the right to stay. Payment for this document is done annually, but families have to travel from their villages to General Santos City on mainland Mindanao, which spirals up the costs they have to pay.
“And they can’t afford to pay for it because they don’t have proper income. And why don’t they have proper income? Because they don’t have a proper job,” said Napitulu.
According to the Indonesian official, the shortage of employment all boils down to the lack of proper documents. “Indeed. It’s complicated. And this is a lengthy process to finally solve their problems.”
Efforts to save these people from the risk of statelessness was strengthened in 2006 when the Republic of Indonesia reformed its citizenship law, so those who lost their nationality could reacquire it.
“We will give them a certificate of citizenship based on what their certificates tell. Now if it shows that they’re Indonesians, we will move on to the next part of the process which is to give them a passport,” he continued.
Since last year, more than 3,000 people of Indonesian descent in the Philippines have been confirmed of their nationality.
In 2011, the Philippines’ Justice Department issued a draft circular proposing how to determine a stateless person. It also sought assistance from the UNHCR in making the draft compliant with the 1954 Convention.
A year later, the country came out with its own statelessness determination procedure. What’s more, former justice minister and now detained Senator Leila De Lima said they cannot be deported.
The country’s leniency towards undocumented aliens stretches back to the 1930s. At the time, Manila welcomed refugees from Germany who were escaping the Holocaust. It also opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees who were sailing to Palawan in the ’90s. While it has welcomed refugees, the Philippines was also hoping they would eventually return home.
In the case of these Indonesians, their government, through the Consulate General, has offered free sea transportation for those who decide to take a one-way ticket home.
“By all means, please. But don’t tell us that we were the ones who encouraged you to do so,” Napitulu warned.
Interestingly, that morning when he addressed Indonesians – many of whom could not understand what he was talking about – he mentioned the achievements of the administration of President Joko Widodo.
Widodo has made 47 major achievements, among those are massive infrastructure projects, he said. Some 7,000km of the road has been completed in his term with 3,800km in Papua. There are many jobs because of the nation’s aggressive public spending, Napitulu added.
“Indonesia is a changed country now,” he said, as if signaling it was the right time to go home.