MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday brushed differences aside and appealed to the Malaysian government’s “humanitarian sense” in helping to repatriate 3,000 Filipinos stranded in a disputed part of Borneo due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
The Filipino leader’s plea came despite a long-standing dispute between the two countries over the territory of Sabah, a Malaysian state in the island’s north.
“That has been a very ticklish issue between our government and we are trying our best to appeal to the humanitarian sense of the Malaysian government to please help our citizens in your country, as we would do for your citizens if they are in our country,” Duterte said in an address.
The president made his request after being briefed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the progress of repatriation efforts for overseas Filipinos.
Nearly 400 Filipinos are expected to arrive from Sabah within the week, joining about 2,000 others who have returned home from Malaysia since June when the government initiated the process.
The total number of repatriated Filipinos includes those who were affected by the cancellation of flights and Malaysia’s border closures following the COVID-19 outbreak. The majority of them are undocumented workers. This is in addition to nearly 3,000 Filipinos in Sabah who are still awaiting repatriation.
Duterte’s appeal for help follows a war of words between the two countries in July after Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. asserted Philippines’ control over the disputed territory of Sabah by tweeting that it was “not in Malaysia.”
Locsin was reacting to a tweet by the American embassy in Manila talking about the US Agency for International Development (USAID) donating hygiene kits to “returning Filipino repatriates from Sabah, Malaysia.”
It led to Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein calling Locsin’s tweet an “irresponsible statement that affects bilateral ties.”
Two months later, in August, Malaysia issued a note verbale rejecting the Philippines’ claim over Sabah.
Meanwhile, in his address on Monday, Duterte also instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and its attaches to assist Filipino workers stranded at sea due to the pandemic.
“I would like to direct the foreign affairs department, our commercial attache, and even the police – we have police and military guys who are assigned in the different embassies – kindly check and do a validation report if there are Filipinos stranded in your ... area of responsibility in countries where you are assigned,” he said.
He added that there were Filipino seafarers stuck out at sea after their ships had been prevented from docking in ports due to COVID-19 precautionary measures.
“In so many places around the world where Filipinos are working, some are still in limbo. They do not know where they will go and whether or not they could still go home,” he said, adding that some were even “infected with COVID-19.”
Duterte said it “pained” him to think that there may be any “inadequacy in the assistance being extended by the government,” and he tasked officials from the country’s diplomatic missions abroad to work with governments in their jurisdictions to help the stranded workers.
“A human being should never, never be a commodity that is just left behind to rot. These are human beings and Filipinos,” he added.