The sun was almost setting when the boat carrying Timah and her two daughter, Saenah and Bilah, docked at Tunon Taka Port, Nunukan, in North Kalimantan. Immediately, the three – newly deported from Tawau, Sabah – were taken to the Nunukan office of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Agency (BP2MI).

That same day, December 28, 2022, we met the three of them. They were not doing too well. Saenah was complaining of a cough. Mrs. Timah seemed to be struggling to gather her memories when we asked about her nephew. 

Even from the moment they stepped out of the ship hull, their faces looked tired. Just imagine, they had just traveled a long and tiring journey. About 12 hours earlier, Indonesian Consulate General (KJRI) officers picked up the three of them from the Manggatal Immigration Detention Center, in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. After an overland trip from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau (451 km), they sailed to Nunukan. Bilah even vomited several times along the Kinabalu-Tawau journey due to motion sickness. They will rest for a few days in a shelter managed by BP2MI Nunukan, before being repatriated to Timah’s hometown in Pinrang, South Sulawesi. 

In the following days, after lunch time we saw three of them regularly; giving them medicine, connecting Timah with her family over the phone. Their condition seemed to be improving. They started to smile although Saenah was still coughing. 

It was only when they were connected via video call that Timah remembered her nephew. She was only four years old when Timah migrated. They had a long chat accompanied by tears and laughter.

During a video call with one of her children who lives in Sabah, Timah thought that Nunukan was within Malaysia. It’s understandable. Timah has been living in Sabah for a long time, probably more than 30 years, without ever returning to Indonesia. 

Always Live in Fear

Timah was arrested by immigration officers in Sabah, deemed to be in Malaysian territory without proper documents, and deported to Indonesia. The Malaysian government refers to people like Timah, who number in the thousands, as Pendatang Asing Tanpa Ijin (PATI) or Unauthorized Foreign Entrants. 

For a long time, migrants from South Sulawesi have traveled to make a living in Sabah, a Malaysian territory located in the northern part of Borneo. Timah still remembers when a relative in her village invited him to work in Malaysia. Timah was estimated to be 16-18 years old at the time (around 1988-1990). From her hometown in Pinrang, Timah traveled to Makassar and then took a boat to Nunukan. From the border town she continued her journey to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, without any documents. 

At the time, Timah did not imagine that she would stay in Sabah for a long time. Since setting foot in Kota Kinabalu, she had never visited her village. Like many Bugis migrants, she considers Sabah as second home. After more than 30 years in Sabah, Timah even has a Filipino foster father and is married to a Filipino immigrant who – like Timah – is also undocumented. 

Timah had nine children. Saenah and Bilah, aged 17 and 15 respectively, two of her children who were also deported, were born and raised in Sabah. And, they have no birth certificates. It is common in Sabah for undocumented migrant women to avoid giving birth in hospitals, for fear of arrest. This explains why Timah’s children, including Saenah and Bilah, do not have birth certificates. 

Without birth certificates, without any identity cards, the children of migrants are excluded from health and education services. Unable to attend public schools, they will later become illiterate teenagers who are forced to accept types of hard labor that are poorly paid, long hours, and without any social security. 

Timah story is part of the irregular migration from Indonesia, mainly from South Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara, to Sabah. This migration is longstanding and intertwined with the demand for cheap labour. Sabah’s economic life is clearly sustained by, even dependent on, shop and food stall keepers, construction and oil palm plantation workers; which majority are undocumented migrants.  

At the same time, the Malaysian government has relentlessly implemented a harsh and intimidating immigration policy. It is common knowledge among Indonesian and Filipino migrants that once caught by immigration officers, they will be separated from their families, lose their livelihoods, sentenced to rattan caning, then mired – for who knows how long – in immigration detention centers with poor conditions; then deported. Without knowing when fate will bring them back to Sabah. 

Before her arrest, Timah had worked at a food stall for four years, after changing jobs several times. Her two children also worked at the same stall, Saenah for two years and Bilah for only three months. Each of them was paid RM 750 (Malaysian Ringgit) per month (around 2.6 million IDR). 

The fateful moment finally arrived. As it was getting late, Timah packed up to close the shop. The clock struck 10pm, when immigration officers came to the shop. Timah and her two children could not produce the required documents. No identity card, no work permit, no passport. That night they were arrested, put on a truck, and taken to the police station for questioning. The shopkeeper’s employer stopped by the police station, but did almost nothing. Without a baill, Timah and her two daughters had to spend the night at the police station. The next day, January 15, 2020, they were transferred to PTS Manggatal in Kota Kinabalu. 

Trapped in the Hell of the World. 

Observing the condition of migrant workers since the beginning of 2020, the Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers (KBMB) found that many undocumented migrants were arrested and – without trial – thrown into immigration detention center. Even if tried, they are left alone without legal counsel, making it difficult to defend themselves. If the court finds them guilty, a punishment awaits them: caning. Children and elderly are exempt.[1]

The immigration detention center is supposed to be a temporary before someone is deported to their home country. However, Timah said she and her two daughters were never released or deported to Indonesia because they were mistaken as Filipinos. “Mistaken as Filipinos,” she said. That’s why for almost three years they have not been deported. They are stuck at the detention center. 

With no clarity on when they will be released, the three are being held at the detention center in poor and inhumane conditions. KBMB reports that many detainees are made miserable by the absence of basic facilities and services such as clean water and inadequate medicine.[2] Despite being given three meals a day, the food is tasteless and often arrives late. They also sleep crammed together in detention block that lack of sunlight. Not surprisingly, the majority of detainees contracted by scabies. It also reported that there were prisoners who suffered paralysis and even died.[3]

Both Timah daughter said life inside detention center was very boring. They were confined to their respective detention blocks. Both Timah children said life inside detention center was very boring. They were stuck in their respective detention blocks. The only activities they did were eating, sleeping, defecating, bathing, exchanging stories, and then sleeping again. And so on for almost three years in detention.

There are detainees who have been in detention center for six months. Some have even been locked up for 1 to 2 years. Timah said that Filipino detainees can be held for up to four years. The uncertain arrest has caused psychological pressure. Many deportees described the conditions in the Immigration Detention Center in Sabah as “hell on earth.”[4]

Undeniably, harsh immigration policies are closely linked to cheap labor. In order to obtain a relatively manageable, and therefore cheaply paid, labor force, a vulnerable legal status as PATI was created and maintained.[5]

Looking for a Way Home 

Having not returned to the village for a long time, his family in Pinrang thought that Timah had died. Fortunately, one of his nephews kept trying to find out Timah’s location. After a long search, which began on Facebook, initial information surfaced and help arrived. Long story short, Timah and his two children were found to be at PTS Manggatal. 

Although his location was known, it took several months for PTS Manggatal to be convinced that Timah and his family were indeed from Indonesia. After being recognised as Indonesian citizens, after almost three years at PTS Manggatal, the three were deported to Indonesia on 28 December 2022.

Timah felt a little relieved to be free from the inhumane and miserable detention center. However, there was also a sense of sadness in her heart because – while she was detained – her husband passed away. 

Timah only heard the news two months later. At that time officers from the consulate came to detention center in an attempt to find Timah. It was a tortuous process, with the wrong person, but Timah was eventually found. While being taken to the office detention center, Timah had the opportunity to call one of her 14-year-old children. 

“Where’s Father?” 

“Bapak is gone, Mak” 

“Where did he go?”  

“Father is dead, Mak” 

The sad news was difficult to accept. Timah thought her husband had only left the house briefly. After being reassured once again that her husband had died, Timah burst into tears and fainted.

The sadness returned when Timah made a video call with her son in Sabah. “Your father is gone. Be careful. Son,” Timah opened the conversation while crying. That afternoon in the shelter room of BP2MI Nunukan, the clear sky suddenly became cloudy. Timah and her daughter’s tears broke out. Timah’s message to her children in Sabah is that they should take care of each other. She hoped they would be able to reunite in the near future. 


After three days of resting at the BP2MI Nunukan shelter, on 31 December 2022 Timah and her two daughters departed on the Queen Soya ship to Makassar to be repatriated to Pinrang. The three of them set foot on the dock of Nunukan’s Tunon Taka Harbour again. The destination this time was not Sabah, but her homeland, which she had left for more than 30 years.

At 5.20pm, just before departure, we again found them in one corner of the ship on the second floor. It’s where they spend the night, as well as spending New Year’s Eve at sea.

All three of them look healthier. With smiles on their faces. Saenah has almost recovered from her cough. We chat about many things including Timah’s hopes. For a while she will be separated from her grandchildren, daughter-in-law and all her children in Sabah. Timah hopes to reunite with his family in Sabah. For Timah and many other undocumented migrant workers, Sabah often feels unwelcoming. But Sabah is still home. In their hearts, they want to find a way back to Sabah. 

The sun slowly said goodbye. At 6pm the Queen Soya raised the anchor to sail to Makassar. From behind the windows of the ship, the two Timah’s daughter waved goodbye.


Muhammad Ad’har Nasir. 

Volunteers of the Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers in Nunukan, North Kalimantan. 

Alya Tara.

Student of Faculty of Law, University of Borneo Tarakan


[1] Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers, “Like Hell (Conditions at the Immigration Detention Center in Sabah, Malaysia),” (Jakarta, KBMB, 2022), pp. 7-18

[2] Id,

[3] Id,

[4] Id,

[5] Nicholas P. De Genova, “Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everday Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 31, (October 2002), pp. 439-440.

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