Soccsksargen keeps eye on travelers from Indonesia slipping through PH backdoor

Sea travel from Indonesia to the southern tip of Mindanao would only take two hours or less, prompting authorities to intensify operations to keep foreign travelers and fishermen from slipping through the Philippine backdoor as a measure against the spread of COVID-19 and its more infectious Delta variant.

General Santos Mayor Ronnel Rivera said the local government has required the crewmembers of incoming vessels, Filipino fishermen who had gone to international waters, and other travelers to take COVID-19 tests and go into quarantine.

“We have to implement strict protocols to protect our city from the Delta variant,” Rivera said.

In nearby Sarangani province, police and local government officials met on Monday, July 19, to further strengthen measures to strictly enforce travel restrictions.

The government has imposed a travel ban on people from Indonesia until July 31. The Philippines began enforcing travel restrictions in relation to the more transmissible Delta variant in late April, when it put in place a travel ban on persons coming from India. The Delta variant was first detected in India.

Intensified border patrols

Lieutenant Colonel Fernando Cunanan Jr., commander of the Soccsksargen Regional Maritime Unit (RMU), said they have beefed up patrols along the coast and shorelines of Sarangani, particularly in Glan town which is adjacent to Sarangani and Balut islands.

These islands, which are part of Davao Occidental, are close to the Indonesian border. Many residents of these islands easily travel to nearby Glan town and this city for their trading, household, food, medical, and other needs.

Cunanan said their efforts are based on the Border Sea Patrol on COVID-19 guidelines forged during a meeting attended by Glan Mayor Vivein Yap, all 16 village heads of Glan, and Navy, Coast Guard, police, and immigration officials.

Cunanan said the rule would make sure that no traveler from Indonesia would enter Mindanao's mainland undetected. (READ: DOH: 12 coronavirus-hit Filipino seafarers from Indonesia 'closely monitored')

Indonesia and the Philippines share a porous sea border. Depending on the type of boat used, one could easily travel from the nearest island in the Indonesian archipelago to Balut island in the southern tip of Mindanao, where there is a significant concentration of people of Indonesian descent.

Due to this proximity, Balut and Sarangani residents, and Indonesians crisscross the borders of the two countries.

A 2016 study by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees showed there were at least 8,745 people of Indonesian descent living in the Balut and Sarangani islands.

In 2018, Indonesia acknowledged that there were at least 2,425 residents of the Mindanao islands who were either purely Indonesians or of mixed Indonesian-Filipino descent. That year, hundreds were given passports by Indonesia's foreign ministry.

The passports allowed many Balut Island residents, usually referred to as "Sangir," to freely travel to and from Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health (DOH) sent 148,700 doses of the Johnson & Johnsson vaccine to Soccsksargen on Monday, particularly for used the elderly and those with comorbidities, especially those living in the region's far-flung villages. –