The Malaysian government has imposed new guidelines for barter traders in Sabah and Labuan, notably requiring Filipinos and other foreigners to have passports or seaman's books in order to enter these areas, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced on Monday.
As this developed, the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo is now eyeing the support of Vatican for its cause.
The DFA said the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur has reported that effective April 15, 2013, all crews of barter trade ships or vessels will be required to produce valid travel documents, such as international passport or seaman's book at all entry ports in Sabah.
In Sabah, the ports allowed to engage in barter trade are in Sandakan, Tawau, Kudat, and in the Federal Territory of Labuan.
Likewise, seaman identification card (SIC) will no longer be issued to crews of barter trade ships or vessels without valid travel documentation, according to a note verbale sent by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry to all diplomatic missions in the Malaysia.
Previously, SICs were issued to individuals, as long as they satisfied the requirements, including a valid medical examination certificate, and payment of 50 Malaysian ringgit (RM).
The number of barter traders issued with SICs last year was 18,388 and the number of vessels involved was 1,768.
The note verbale further said that effective April 2, 2013, permanent Custom and Immigration Quarantine (CIQ) complexes will be operating at Ports of Kudat and Lahad Datu as well as an Immigration Control office at Karakit, Pulau Banggi where all immigration and customs procedures will be enforced at the said entry points.
"The Embassy wishes to call the attention of all barter traders and other concerned parties to the new regulation, otherwise they may be significantly inconvenienced if they are found by Malaysian authorities to be in violation," Consul General Medardo Macaraig said in a statement.
Under the new measure, barter traders will only be allowed to be in Sabah and Labuan for a maximum of seven days, with no extension. Crew members are also not allowed to move to another boat until they return to their country of origin.
Ship captains in violation of the said measure will be charged under the Malaysian Immigration Act 1959/63, Section 55 A (conveying a person to Malaysia illegally), which is punishable with up to five years in prison or up to RM50,000 in fines or six strokes of a cane.
They can also be charged under the new Immigration Act Anti-Trafficking in Person and Smuggling of Migrants, where the penalty is a maximum period of 20 years imprisonment or fine of RM500,000 (roughly around P6.6 million) and blacklisting.
The ship's crew would also be charged under the Immigration Act's Section 6 (1) (c) or lack of valid documents in entering the country, which provides for up to five years in prison or a fine of up to RM10,000 (around P132,000) or up to six strokes of a cane.
The DFA said it is now coordinating with concerned government agencies to support affected sectors in Mindanao in meeting the challenges of this new regulation.
The sultanate's spokesman Abraham J. Idjirani said Sultan Jamalul Kiram III was eyeing the support of the Vatican, particularly with new Pope Francis apparently friendly with Muslims.
"This Sabah issue concerns geopolitics. Kailangan natin and support ng Vatican dito (We need the Vatican's support here)," he said.
Speaking in behalf of Kiram, Idjirani also spoke highly of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), its "influence should not be neglected."
The sultan, her daughter Princess Jacel, Idjirani, and Pastor "Boy" Saycon, left for the CBCP office Monday afternoon for a meeting with Catholic leaders.
"So, hopefully, the president of the CBCP will invite the attention of the Vatican to do something about it because the Vatican advocates peace, prosperity, and respect for human rights," said Idjirani.
He added that this is particularly so with a new pope who loves the poor. (With a report from Edd K. Usman)