PH has no access to Sabah detainees

MANILA, Philippines - While it has allowed a Philippine team to enter Sabah, Malaysia continues to refuse the Philippines access to Filipinos detained for alleged involvement in the ongoing standoff in the state, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Wednesday, March 13.

"It is part of our job (…) to know what is happening to our people, wherever they are [and] this act of requesting full access from the Malaysian government is part of this mandate," DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters.

Hernandez stressed that "[we want] to meet and talk to our people who have been detained (…) so we can know their condition as well as find out what assistance we can extend to them."

The DFA has repeatedly asked Malaysia for access to the detainees, but all requests have so far been ignored. Malaysia earlier said it has so far arrested over 60 Filipinos involved in the standoff.

Asked if Malaysia's refusal may have something to do with alleged human rights violations against Filipinos, Hernandez on Tuesday said that "it’s difficult to make such conclusion because we might border on accusation."

The department is taking the allegations seriously, but insists that every report must be documented, confirmed and validated before presenting them to the Malaysian authorities.

On Wednesday, Malaysia's premier called the standoff a "wake-up call" that will lead to tighter security on the neighbors' notoriously porous sea border.

Prime Minister Najib Razak added that securing the border was a "huge challenge" due to eastern Sabah state's long coastline and the centuries-old movement of people between there and the adjacent southern Philippines.

"This is a wake-up call. There are gaps in terms of our capabilities, but we hope we will be able to close the gaps," Najib said in an interview published in the New Straits Times newspaper.

"For example, the coastline of Sabah is simply enormous," he was quoted as saying. (Read: Sabah a 'wake-up call')

Malaysia did however allow Philippine consular officials and representatives from several government agencies to visit and provide assistance to Filipino civilians not involved in the standoff.

About 500 Filipinos -- both residents and undocumented immigrants -- are currently living in evacuation centers in Sabah, while about 2,000 have fled the region after the conflict erupted a month ago. The bulk of the evacuees -- more than 500 -- arrived in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi Wednesday morning. - with reports from Carlos Santamaria/Rappler.com