Bajau Laut

The Bajau Laut is a uniquely maritime people living in the coastal areas of the East Malaysian state of Sabah for hundreds of years. They have adapted to life at sea as no other people in the world, and they have been respected locally for their skills in diving and fishing, and as important suppliers of fish and seafood for the region.  Bajau Laut sea hunters can dive to below 100 ft without diving equipment and stay under water for several minutes. The Bajau Laut children have been proven to have adapted skills of focusing under water, which other children cannot do.

The Bajau Laut have been living in harmony with the sea, and their choice of life at sea, is due to a bounty of food in the rich coral reefs of what is today called “the Coral Triangle” between the islands of Borneo, Mindanao and Sulawesi. But today their unique sea culture is at risk of disappearing.  As a largely stateless population they are one of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the region, as commercial fishing and destructive practices such as fish bombing have depleted coral reefs and undermined their traditional fishing methods.

As a nomadic people the Bajau Laut are living on the waters of the Coral Triangle between the nations of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia, and therefore they often remain stateless without any proof of nationality and without access to school and medical care. Some of our contacts within the community express that in the past “you land people controlled the land, and we were free to roam the seas. Now you have also taken over controls of the seas and we are no more free.”

Ongoing conflict and insecurity in Southern Philippines, as well as commercial overfishing and a gradual colonization of the reefs by Seaweed growers from other groups, have led the Bajau Laut to leave most of their traditional fishing grounds. Many have settled for a life in stilted villages along the shore of Eastern Borneo and it has meant a departure from life on boats, but still with strong ties to the sea, and with collection and seafood and fishery as the main livelihood.  In some cases the Bajau Laut communities with nowhere else to be are forced to live in the street in urban areas. Poverty in the community often forces the children into begging and living on the street.

For the growing number of Bajau Laut, who have settled near urban areas in Semporna, Lahad Datu and Kunak in Sabah, begging has become the main way for the Bajau Laut to support themselves, and it is normal to see small boys and girls alone or in groups asking other people for money and thereby leaving them extremely vulnerable to abuse.

The fate of these communities is very uncertain, and where the knowledge of all the creatures of the sea as well as a confidence to travel in the coral areas here should be great advantages for young people, at one of the world’s highest rated diving and snorkeling and eco-tourism destinations, the Bajau Laut are usually not having access to these sectors, due to lack of education.

And sadly the Bajau Laut is not the only community in Sabah, which is struggling with no proof of nationality and lack of access to education. Stateless Children of refugees from conflict in the southern Philippines and immigrants from Indonesia are also not able to register their children at government schools in Sabah, whereby they often face an early life as child laborers without any hope of education.

For more information about the Bajau Laut visit this ressource page.

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