In Pangyan, a remote village at the southern tip of Mindanao island in the Philippines, Kere Tahidaki may soon realize his dream of reuniting one day with his relatives in Indonesia.
Nearly one-half century ago, Tahidaki and his family crossed the sea border from Sangir island in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province, seeking greener pastures.
He is one of thousands of people of Indonesian heritage who migrated to this region from the neighboring country over the years but live as undocumented and stateless residents of the southern Philippines. Now that the Philippines and Indonesia are working together to identify and document illegal migrants, Tahidaki is hopeful he might finally have another opportunity to return to Indonesia to see family members who stayed behind.
“I had lost communication with them. I miss my parents and I wish I was there beside them when they needed me,” Tahidiki told BenarNews.
Memories of the sea voyage remain seared in the 68-year-old’s mind. Back then, he and other young men crammed into a wooden boat for a journey that ended four days later in Pangyan, which lies on the coast in Glan, a municipality in Mindanao, the largest of the islands in the southern Philippines.
When Tahidiki arrived here as a young man, he said he started out working as a fisherman and hand on a coconut farm.
He later met the woman who would become his wife, a fellow Indonesian, Aisyah, who bore him 10 children.
Tahidaki says he still understands Bahasa Indonesia, but, today, he largely speaks the local dialect in place of his native tongue.
“The Filipino people treated us well. We did not have any problems with our neighbors and we are following the law of the land,” he said in Filipino.
Since arriving here decades ago, he never had an opportunity to see his parents and 10 siblings.
Life was hard, and crossing the strait again, he said, would cost money that he didn’t have. Another concern was that he may reach Indonesia, but would not be allowed back to Mindanao because he didn’t have the proper papers.
Tahidaki’s neighbor, Martin Ampager, 64, also came here from Sangir Island. He arrived in Glan, in 1973, for the same reasons.
He said he wanted a better life, but like Tahidaki, he was not prepared for a Muslim separatist rebellion that erupted in the southern Philippines.
The fighting spread like wildfire, and it complicated efforts to reconnect with their families back in Indonesia.
The Indonesian migrants largely kept to themselves, officials said. However, the Philippine military has said that those who were born in the south were known to have joined a Muslim separatist movement, which would last for the next four decades.
For Ampanger, he no longer intends to return to Indonesia, saying he is content with the life he has made here. Still, to possess official travel documents identifying him as an Indonesian is something he says he wants.
His five children – all born in the south – already have their own families and have assimilated well to local life, he said.
“I am old and anytime I might die. I don’t have any legal documents but if the Indonesian government will give me a passport, I am very much grateful,” Ampanger told BenarNews.
As Filipino as the next person
Local village chief Osman Salisilan said there were about 100 Indonesian migrants families in their village.
Many have imbibed the local culture and are as Filipino as the next person, unless they introduced themselves, he said.
“We are providing them benefits like health insurance,” Salisilan said. “You would not recognize them as Indonesians unless they introduce themselves.”
Most of the Indonesians have become fishermen, though some were farmers who dispersed as employees for local firms.
They largely have no criminal records, Salisilan said.
Earlier this month, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs granted 300 passports to their people in Mindanao to address their statelessness.
Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi said around 2,425 passports had so far been issued to “pure” Indonesians living in the southern Philippines. Another 2,074 were found out to have mixed Filipino-Indonesian blood, and they could be granted official travel documents, she said.
“It’s a very basic right of every person to get their status of nationality,” Retno told reporters when she visited southern Davao city and met with President Rodrigo Duterte in early January.
“Being stateless always brings risks because they do not know who will protect them,” Marsudi said.
In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conducted a mapping of Indonesians in Mindanao, and found that nearly 9,000 people were registered as persons of Indonesian heritage.
Tahidaki said he was grateful for the intervention of the Indonesian consulate and hoped that they would soon be given passports.
“I wanted to return to our homeland to find my relatives,” he said.