The ongoing military actions by Malaysian forces against the followers of the Sultanate of Sulu have raised tensions in the Philippines. Image Credit: EPA

Manila:Two Filipino Muslims, Jul Ibba, 50, and Gafur Rudjin, 22, left a two-month job in Sabah’s palm oil refinery. They stole a small boat so that they could return to their hometown in the southern Philippines as Malaysian security forces intensified search for a Filipino-Muslim prince and his 200 who have occupied a village in early February to press the royal family’s claim over Sabah, a local paper said.

After leaving Tulibas, Sabah, Ibba and Rudjin’s vessel was rescued by Philippine Navy’s BRP Edsa II, 8.4 nautical miles off Omapui Island in Sitangkai, at the southernmost part of the Philippines, Manila Bulletin said.

They were part of more than 2,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who have returned home in the southern Philippines, from March 4 to 12, after Malaysian security forces started clearing operations on Tanduao village in Lahad Datu where Raja Mudda Agbimuddin Kiram and his 200 followers occupied on February 9.

The crisis in Sabah has sent local government officials and representatives of the departments of local government, social welfare, foreign affairs, and labour preparing for the massive exodus of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their families from Sabah, Governor Sadikul Sahali also told Manila Bulletin,

Thirty-four Philippine Navy boats and several military trucks were deployed to assist Task Force Tabang in bringing refugees who arrive at a wharf in Kasulutan Village, Bongao town, Tawi Tawi, to a temporary shelter, at the Mindanao Institute of Technology, Sahali said.

More than 500 OWFs and their family members are still a temporary shelter in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. “Majority of them have gone back to their respective homes in the south,” said Sahali. They included 240 men, 132 women, 130 children, and 21 infants.

Policemen were also ordered to work double time to implement security measures to save lives and protect properties, said Sahali.

Apart from establishing temporary shelters for returning OFWs, local government officials have been closely monitoring prices of basic commodities and fuel products.

Sahali warned traders not to hoard goods. They were told not to raise prices of canned goods, eggs, noodles, oil, rice, sugar, including gasoline sold in soft drink bottles

These measures were implemented to stop product shortage, exacerbated by the growing number of OFWs returning from Sabah, and the trade embargo imposed by the Malaysian government on Filipino-Muslim traders, Sahali explained.

Regional offices of the National Food Authority have enough rice supplies in southern Philippine areas where OFWs from Sabah are based, said Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas.

Meanwhile, in Sabah, a total of 1,464 evacuees, comprising of Filipino, Indonesian, Timorese and local workers, were found at four temporary centres in Cenderawasih Gym, Embara Budi, Fajar Harapan and Gemalapura — at Sabah’s Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) region.

There are 451 OFWs with 350 dependents doing maintenance work at FELDA, Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya said in a statement.

Some 50 OFWs were also found at the Fook Ngiap sawmill, Malaya said, adding that the Philippine Embassy and the Philippine Social Welfare department have formed a humanitarian team that met with OFWs in many parts of Sabah such as the FELDA region, Lahad Datu, Semporna, and Sandakan, starting March 12.

“We are exerting utmost efforts to reach out to as many Filipinos in eastern Sabah at the soonest time possible. We are making arrangements to repatriate those who express the desire to do so,” said Ambassador Malaya.

Team members are now manning a mobile humanitarian and welfare desk where they give food, relief goods, and reassurance to OFWs. They also send off OFWs at Sandakan, Sabah, before the latter leave for the southern Philippines.

A total of more than 840,000 OFWs are based in Sabah, majority of them illegal. Ambassador Malaya did not say how many of them will be returning to the Philippines.