Which Countries Share Sebatik Island?

Sebatik Island (circled) is a small island off the island of Borneo.
Sebatik Island (circled) is a small island off the island of Borneo.

Sebatik Island is an island in Southeast Asia, located in the Celebes Sea, approximately 0.62 miles east of Borneo. Referred to locally as Pulau Sebatik, the island is situated south of Tawau Bay and north of Sibuku Bay. Sebatik Island occupies a land area of approximately 174.6 square miles and has an estimated population of 105,000. The island is shared between two nations: Malaysia and Indonesia. The northern part of the island is administered by Malaysia, as the state of Sabah and the Tawau Division, and has a population of 25,000. The southern part of the island is administered by Indonesia, as the North Kalimantan province and the Nunukan Regency. The division of the island occurred through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, during the occupation and colonization of Indonesia and North Borneo. Political ownership of the island was later transferred to Malaysia and Indonesia upon independence.

Border Disputes

The island's international border is patrolled by border guards but has no customs, immigration offices, walls, or fences. Instead, it is denoted by concrete markers placed every 0.62 miles along the border. Despite the relatively open border between the two nations, the island has experienced conflict. The Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation was a violent episode that occurred between 1963 and 1966. The conflict was linked to Indonesia's opposition to the formation of Malaysia, which was the result of the amalgamation of Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak, and the Federation of Malaya. The boundary between the two nations has also resulted in disputes due to its ambiguity. For example, the eastern terminus of the boundary does not clearly define which nation has rightful ownership of Unarang Rock. The partitioning of the maritime area east of the island is also unclear. Uncertainty over ownership of this area, which has petroleum deposits claimed by both countries, led to a dispute in March 2005. The border's ambiguity has caused disagreement over the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan, which are seemingly located to the south but are governed by Malaysia. A ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002 ruled in favor of Malaysia as the rightful owner of the two islands.

Smuggling and Trafficking Along the Border

The island has gained notoriety as an entry point for smuggled goods from Malaysia, such as sugar, as well as gas, oil, and fuel for cooking because they are relatively cheaper due to Malaysian government subsidies. The island has also been identified as a key drug and human trafficking point. The Malaysian government has attempted to address these concerns through tighter enforcement by customs and marine police, as well as the removal of certain subsidies.

Border Wall Proposal

The Malaysian government has considered the construction of a border wall to separate the two nations in order to ensure stricter border control, as well as to address claims within the Malaysian government that Indonesia is slowly encroaching on Malaysian territory. However, plans to build a border wall have been criticized by various stakeholders as being insensitive to local dynamics, such as the high rate of intermarriage between the two nations. The proposed wall would create a barrier between families and certain villages that have grown accustomed to the open boundaries.


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