Philippine and Indonesian Governments work together to end statelessness in Mindanao

Since 2011, the Philippine Government, Indonesian Government, and UNHCR has been working together to bring legal protection to over 8,000 Persons of Indonesian Descent in southern Philippines.

An immigration officer talks to a Person of Indonesian Descent in Davao. Photo: © UNHCR/F. Tanggol

DAVAO CITY – For the past few days, a group composed of protection officers, lawyers, and immigration officers has been going around various towns in southern Philippines and bringing with them a truck full of documents and IT equipment. Today’s stop is at Davao City, just one of the many areas included in the nearly one-month solutions feedback mission which helps bring legal protection to Persons of Indonesian Descent (PIDs) in Mindanao.

“Persons of Indonesian Descent are those staying here in Mindanao with mixed parentage usually, the mother is Indonesian, the father is Filipino, or vice versa, or both parents are Indonesian but they were already born and raised here in the Philippines,” explains Fiel Castro, State Counsel of the Department of Justice.

Before the solutions feedback mission, there were various phases in the project which included the mapping and registration of Persons of Indonesian Descent in Mindanao. During the registration phase, over 8,000 Persons of Indonesian Descent were registered.

The Philippines and Indonesia are both located in Southeast Asia and share a very close border. Its people have traditionally migrated by sea between the two nations for centuries.

“The problem persists when Indonesia and the Philippines then become their own states, with their own citizens,” explains Agus Abdul Majid, Consul for Immigration of the Indonesian Consulate in Davao. “The migration or the mobility of the border people keep happening even after the independence. And probably because of the lack of understanding of law and regulation they don’t understand about the migration policy of both countries.”

Groups of people become at risk of statelessness due to their unclear nationality status passed on across generations. Some individuals also lack documents such as a birth certificate as proof of identity. Without a clear county to where they belong, persons at risk of statelessness, like the Persons of Indonesian Descent, are relegated to the sidelines with no access to basic rights such as health care, education, and employment.

“When we registered them, there were a lot of PIDs that did not have valid documents, did not have birth certificate, or if they have birth certificate, there’s some erroneous entries,” says Agus. “So on the solution feedback mission, we start to discuss what solution we can give to them in order for us to decide their nationality status.”

Providing solutions

At 8:00 am, officers begin talking to people from nearby communities who have come here to get clarity on their nationalities and fix their birth certificates.

Lenchie Sarumpia, a 33 year-old housewife and mother of five, is one of the Persons of Indonesian Descent who has dropped by in mission in Davao. She is with other family members including her mother, sister, and brother. All of them had erroneous birth certificates which they needed to replace.

Lenchie Sarumpia gets free legal advice from a PAO lawyer during the solutions feedback mission in Davao. Photo: © UNHCR/F. Tanggol

“Our birth certificate had an error, our middle name had one wrong letter. They are helping us change our birth certificates to a correct one,” says Lenchie.

Explaining the importance of a correct birth certificate for her, she adds, “This document is very important because once you have proper documents, you have proof of identity and you can show it wherever you go.”

During the mission, PID families who have mixed nationality parentage like those Lenchie’s have also been asked whether they choose to be a Filipino or Indonesian. “They also asked us if we prefer to be Indonesian or Filipino,” shares Lenchie. “I grew up here and I am already used to being a Filipino. My husband and children are also a Filipino. This is why I chose to be a Filipino.”

The Sarumpia family with Lenchie (rightmost) their mother (centre, in blue) and siblings. Photo: © UNHCR/F. Tanggol

For Persons of Indonesian Descent who have been determined as clearly Indonesian, the Indonesian Consulate will help facilitate the proper documents, whether they wish to stay in the Philippines or Indonesia. For those who wish to return to Indonesia, the Indonesian Government are also preparing to assist their citizens.

“For them who want to go back to Indonesia, we ask them: To which part of Indonesia are you going to be repatriated? How many of you wants to be repatriated? So after knowing all these information, we will communicate with our capital and also the local government to facilitate in the repatriation process and also in the livelihood process while they are being resettled in that area. So all these questions we accommodate in the systems of solution feedback mission,” explains Agus.

Working together

This project between UNHCR and the Governments of the Philippines and Indonesia has been going on since 2011. The Philippines’ Department of Justice – Refugees and Stateless Persons Unit (DOJ-RSPPU) leads the project together with the Bureau of Immigration, Public Attorney’s Office, Indonesian Consulate, and UNHCR Philippines. Each agency has their own specialized mandate to support Persons of Indonesian Descent.

“We were designated by the Philippine Government to be the lead agency for RSPPU,” says Fiel from DOJ. “We accept applications for refugees and stateless persons in the Department.”

The Bureau of Immigration is involved in the project to help in registering the Persons of Indonesian Descent. “Under the Alien Registration Act of 1950, it states there that the mandate of Bureau of Immigration is to register all aliens, whether documented, even if they don’t have passports or wherever their port of entry,” explains Genevieve Villa, Immigration Officer. “As long as they arrived here in the Philippines, we have to register them for records’ purposes, not to give them visa or immigrant status per se.”

The Public Attorney’s Office provides free legal assistance to the Persons of Indonesian Descent. “PAO’s mission is to provide free legal assistance to indigent litigants,” says Ester Vega, Public Attorney. “We assist them in preparing legal documentation asking them to what citizenship they would prefer, whether they would prefer Indonesian or Filipino. We also provide judicial corrections of entries on the birth certificate.”

The Indonesian Consulate assists in the confirmation of Indonesian citizenship to the registered individuals. Cases of Persons of Indonesian Descent who are not clearly Filipino were handed over to the Consulate for their assessment.

“We accumulated 8,745 PIDs registered within the system,” says Agus. “We did a preliminary assessment within our office at the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in Davao City. However, for complicated cases, we had to invite a technical team from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights Directorate of Citizenship to come here to Davao. All together, we confirmed 2,399 as Indonesian.”

Meanwhile, UNHCR facilitates the missions as part of their global mandate to end statelessness. They also provided information management assistance through an integrated registration system used in registering PIDs.

As the day comes to a close, Lenchie and her whole family finally have a clear indication of their nationality status. The next phase of the project is the distribution of their correct birth certificates which is planned at the middle of the year.

“We are grateful that our birth certificates are complete, there are no more errors in spelling. We are very thankful to them,” says Lenchie.


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