IN the country’s southernmost backdoor, December 12, 2021, will perhaps be the most memorable date for some 287 Sama Bajaus, the tribe infamously dubbed as Filipino sea gypsies. The date would be etched deep into their psyche, similar to many who remember birthdays and marriage anniversaries that are dear to their hearts.
For this is the day that the Bajaus, or Badjaos, received their birth certificates, the first by anyone in their tribe since time immemorial. With the issuance of this document, they would cease to be nameless and stateless.
If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation could have beamed its spotlight on the ceremony in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, which saw them anxiously panning their eyes on the piece of paper bearing their names and other personal record that would, henceforth, be their key to transacting business or receiving social welfare benefits.
However, international attention was not wanting. Representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) witnessed the event as godfathers would stand as sponsors. Only this time, they were the two UN agencies which worked with the national government and the Bongao municipal government to ensure the event would unfold.
THE two UN agencies said the Sama Bajaus form one of the “state-identified populations at risk of statelessness in the Philippines.”
“Because of their itinerant way of living and generations of non-registration among families, they face documentation issues, which in turn puts them at risk of statelessness,” their joint statement read.
Through the 2019 UNHCR-Unicef Joint Strategy for Addressing Childhood Statelessness, both UN agencies supported the local government unit of Zamboanga City in piloting birth registration for Sama Bajaus.
In 2021, the project expanded to reach Sama Bajaus in Tawi-Tawi following an assessment conducted in 2019 led by the Geneva-based Joint IDP Profiling Services (JIPS) and UNHCR, which found the prevalence of non-registration of birth among respondents in Bongao.
Without these indispensable official papers, “Sama Bajau children and families who are not registered at birth are excluded from the Conditional Cash Transfer program, have limited access to other social services, and become limited in their movement,” the statement added.
“Most of the Sama Bajaus in Bongao are also internally displaced due to natural disasters, further heightening their level of vulnerability,” the statement added. “Because they lack awareness on the importance of birth registration, have limited finances, and are unfamiliar about the process, some Sama Bajaus have not been able to register their birth. Cases of multiple birth registration also surfaced as a concern, posing difficulties for the Local Civil Registrar (LCR) in reconciling its records,” it said.
THE 2019 UN initiative was conducted with key government agencies from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Barmm), civil society organizations, and other UN agencies.
Barangay Lamion in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, was identified as a pilot community in coordination with key officials of the municipal government. In response to the report’s findings that health workers play a vital role in cascading health-related information among Sama Bajau communities, the initiative tapped the health workers in Lamion for the birth registration activities.
Staff from the Bongao LCR and members of U-Report Philippines from Tau-Social Peace Advocate of Real Tawi-Tawian Active Network (Tau-SPARTAN), KAKASIE, Youth Volunteer Organization and Simunul Youth Guild, Path for Peace and Nutrieskwela Radyo Kasannangan were also trained on birth registration and advocacy ahead of the rollout.
The UNHCR provided support to the digitization process of the Bongao Local Civil Registry by providing information and communications equipment and trained the office personnel in the database system to address the issue of multiple birth registration.
“We extend our sincerest appreciation to the municipality of Bongao for its leadership and commitment to the birth registration of Sama Bajaus, a population facing double vulnerability since they are also internally displaced in addition to being at risk of statelessness,” said Maria Ermina Valdeavilla-Gallardo, head of the Philippine office of UNHCR.
Beacon for wanderers
THE Bajaus are conspicuous street fixtures in many Philippine cities, often dressed shabbily and begging for coins or food scraps on the table, using sign language and facial expressions to persuade persons to share with them some loose change and some food leftovers.
In coastal cities, they would gladly oblige to dive to catch the coins thrown by boat passengers or strollers along dikes and wharves.
Through the years, some have veered away from this culture of begging and turned to hawking ukay-ukay, or used clothing, shoes and bags.
Lawyer Marlisa Gallo, chief of the Davao City Social Services and Development Office, said “the Badjao community in the city has been gradually reeducated from begging to vending.”
“It is the city’s livelihood assistance to them,” she said.
Some cities, like Davao, have opened other permanent programs for them, such as special education sessions tailored to their itinerant ways, and some have become professionals and currently taking over the teaching chores from non-Bajau teachers.
In the BARMM, Education Minister Mohagher Iqbal turned over 55 classrooms to 24 schools in the Schools Division of Tawi-Tawi in April this year, including those for the Bajau learners.
In July, two members of the Bangsamoro Parliament filed a bill to protect the welfare of the indigenous peoples’ communities, which include the Sama Bajaus.
Melanio Ulama and Romeo Saliga introduced Cabinet Bill 40, otherwise known as the “Indigenous Peoples Rights Act in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region,” in the plenary. “This humble representation believes that this measure would help uplift the lives of the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) in the Bangsamoro region and address the injustices committed against them,” Saliga said in his sponsorship speech.
He said the bill intends to serve all IPs in the Barmm, including the Tèduray, Lambangian/Balèg, Dulangan Manobo, Erumanum Ne Menuvu, Badjao, Sama, Yakan, Higaonon, Blaan and other indigenous tribes recognized by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MIPA).
Among the powers and functions placed in the ministry was assessing IPs’ conditions, issuing property titles, developing and implementing programs for economic, social and cultural development, providing legal assistance, and guiding the chief minister on matters relating to IPs.
THE December 12, 2021, distribution of birth certificates for the Sama Bajaus in Tawi-Tawi was also a product Unicef’s U-Report, a social messaging tool and data collection system to improve adolescent and youth citizen engagement, inform leaders, and foster positive change.
“The youth volunteers will spearhead the conduct of community-based advocacy on birth registration targeting parents, caregivers, government officials and decision-makers in Bongao.”
Unicef Philippines Country Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov said, “As we celebrate Unicef’s 75th anniversary, we recognize the clear reminder of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), that every child must be registered at birth and given a name and nationality.”
He added: “Children need to be officially registered and be recognized by the government to where their protection is ensured against any form of violence or exploitation against children. Government as duty-bearer needs to ensure that every child has access to quality basic services like health, nutrition, education, safe water, safe environment and protective family to attain their full potential.”
“We will continue to work with partner agencies such as Unicef to ensure the protection of Sama Bajaus through their access to documentation,” said UNHCR’s Valdeavilla-Gallardo. “Our efforts are in line with the Philippine Development Plan, the National Action Plan to End Statelessness by 2024, and the 2030 Agenda of leaving no one behind.”
Image courtesy of Ew Chee Guan | Dreamstime.com