iWitness Photography

Peter Lopeman

Homes and families in the Phillipino stilt village

Just a mile off the coast of bustling Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, an infamous sprawling settlement of 'illegals' has grown along the shores of Gaya Island. Almost 6,000 people live in the squalid conditions of the stilt houses built over the sea. The village began in the 1970s when the mainly Muslim Moro people of the Philippines came to north Borneo as refugees in a bid to escape the war raging in the Philippines. The civil war lasted years, and was a violent anti-government uprising. It is considered a dangerous, high crime or "no-go" area by the police and Kota Kinabalu locals. I took heed of the local advice not to land on the village when I asked the boat to take me to the see for myself. My pilot - Omar, and his young nephew - could not have been more helpful and friendly, giving lie to the rumours that crime is rife and even kidnappings take place. However, I took no chances as I hit the water in Omar's slightly leaking boat. The villagers travel solely by boat to the city every day for work and sometimes school. But the island has its own school, mosque and shops - but probably unrecognisable as such to outsiders. The stilt houses are linked by walkways of weathered planks. As the population grew, new houses spread seaward, with no regard for sanitation. Three fires in 1994, 1998 and in 2014 have wiped out nearly half of the island's villages. After the fire in 2014, the Sabah state government have proposed to move the illegal immigrants in the island to Kinarut with a better facility of modern houses, this has been opposed with an outcry from the Sabahan citizens, including some who want the current Chief Minister to resign over his mishandling power. My visit to the water village was brief - just an hour. I felt more than a pang of guilt for being the relatively wealthy westerner, and also for being the voyeur into people's everyday lives. Omar took my fare of RM50 (about £8) and gently commented that my watch was very very nice. It was just a $30 Timex from New York three years ago. Omar is wearing it now.