Malaysia defends eviction of sea nomads, citing security concerns

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysian authorities defended their decision to evict hundreds of sea nomads from their homes off the coast of Sabah state this week, saying it was aimed at boosting security and combating cross-border crime.

More than 500 people from the Bajau Laut, a mostly stateless sea-faring community who live on rickety houseboats or coastal huts built on stilts, saw their homes demolished or burned by enforcement officials this week, local activists have said.

The operation in Sabah’s Semporna district was criticised by rights groups, which called on the government to halt the evictions and ensure the safety and protection of the Bajau Laut.

Sabah’s minister of tourism, culture and environment Christina Liew said authorities were empowered to act against illegal activities, such as fishing, building structures and farming without permission, in protected areas controlled by Sabah Parks, a state conservation agency.

“The sovereignty of the country’s laws in this issue must be upheld,” she said in a statement on Friday.

Liew said evacuation notices were sent to 273 unauthorised settlements last month, with 138 structures demolished between Tuesday and Thursday in “hot spots” around the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, a tourism attraction known for its diving spots.

Citing police sources, Liew alleged that some homeowners had burned their own houses to gain sympathy and go viral on social media.

The operation was carried out taking into account security factors, including cross-border crime, she said. Semporna lies on the north-eastern tip of Borneo, bordering the southern Philippines.

The Bajau Laut have been recorded living in the area for centuries, but many are born without nationality documents and are regarded by authorities as migrants.

Rights group Pusat Komas called on the state to provide alternative homes and address documentation issues to ensure the Bajau Laut received fair treatment and access to essential services.

“Their forced removal raises serious questions about the equitable treatment of ethnic minorities in Malaysia,” the group said.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Kim Coghill)



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