Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco has sought an investigation into the exodus of Manila-bound indigenous people from Sulu, Tawi-tawi, and Basilan, who left their homes in search for better lives.
Climaco said at least 620 Sama-Bajaus, some of them children, have so far left the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) provinces, and 340 of them managed to travel by sea to Manila via Zamboanga in batches since April.
Officials said 204 other Bajaus were stopped and were held in Zamboanga City on Wednesday, June 9. There were 76 others, all Zamboanga-based, who planned to travel with the group to Manila.
Local officials said the Bajaus, who already had fare tickets, had no clear plans, and would likely end up as wanderers in the streets of Metro Manila.
At least three tested positive for COVID-19, and it was likely that the virus has already infected most of them, according to Climaco.
More swab samples were taken from the Bajaus, and officials were waiting for the test results as of this posting.
Socorro Roxas, Zamboanga’s social welfare and development officer, said the Bajaus had the same answer when asked why they wanted to go to Manila: they were in search of greener pastures, and wanted to succeed like fellow Bajau Rita Gaviola who rose to fame after her photo went viral on the internet in 2016.
“They had a uniform answer,” said Roxas.
Hussayin Albih Datu Arpa, president of the Zamboanga-based Sama-Bajau United Group Inc., said each of the families saved as much as P10,000 to P15,000 for their journey.
Arpa said he doubted suspicions that a crime syndicate was behind the Bajaus’s exodus from the BARMM provinces.
Roxas said the Bajaus were being housed in government facilities in Zamboanga. The expenses were being taken care of by the Zamboanga City government and BARMM, Roxas said.
City hall, however, said a bigger group of Bajaus were stopped at the North Harbor in Manila on June 2. Authorities said the Bajaus started traveling to Manila in smaller groups starting on April 27, May 5, and May 30. All in all, there are 340 Bajaus now being taken care of in Manila, and they would be sent back to Mindanao.
Climaco on Thursday, June 10, asked the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) headed by Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Villar to start an investigation.
United Sama-Bajau Association (USBA) president Adim Atti said the Bajau families left their homes because their lives became more difficult in the BARMM provinces due to the pandemic, and they have not received government aid.
“What the Bajaus need is something more permanent, more viable such as education and skills trainings to help them prepare for the future,” Atti said.
Climaco said, “The Bajaus are very vulnerable to abuse, and they should be accorded our protection… It is our moral and social responsibility to protect these vulnerable individuals from possible threats, and accord them the highest respect as human beings.” – Rappler.com