Last September the Japan Foundation sent me on a study tour of three Japanese cities, with two occasions where I had to deliver papers, one on cultural perceptions of the elderly and the other on migration and refugees.
The paper on migration and refugees, delivered at the University of Tokyo, was the more difficult one to prepare, coming out of the sensory overload in the media with the many refugee crises throughout the world. The photos and videos have been heart-wrenching, the refugees’ faces marked by despair, sometimes even anger.
Those photographs are meant to disturb us, whether of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian child whose corpse was washed ashore in Turkey, or of the boats packed with refugees from Africa trying to get into Europe. In recent months, we’ve seen the exodus of the Rohingya, Muslims who have lived in Myanmar for centuries but are now being forced out. Some 650,000 have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since August.
The photographs that I find most disturbing are those of elderly Rohingya practically being dragged ashore by those who still had the strength. With younger people, you might find faint hints of relief on their faces; with the elderly, it is a mix of anguish at having left their homeland and fears about an unknown future.
We have to look at the photographs and think about the inhumanity that creates those crises, an irony because our humanity was in fact defined by countless refugee movements, starting with the bands of early Homo sapiens moving out of Africa, slowly over the millennia, to populate the world.
We tend to differentiate migrants from refugees, presuming that it is only the latter who are fleeing some hardship. But even the early human migrations were spurred by dwindling natural resources, forcing people to move out and onward.
“Hardship” takes many forms, the most obvious being economic, which is relative. Last Wednesday I wrote about Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong, where they get around P28,000 a month, being lured to work in China as nannies, where they could get P53,000 to P60,000 a month.
Besides economic reasons, many refugees leave because of persecution simply because they are of a minority, of a different ethnicity, religion, or political beliefs. We have many of these refugees, almost euphemistically referred to as “internal displaced populations.” The wars in Mindanao have created many of these refugees, to the point that we have coined a Filipino-English word, “bakwit,” derived from the English “evacuate,” refugees herded into relocation centers.
Look closely at the faces of Filipinos and you find living proof of refugee movements across the centuries. We are a nation descended from and continue to be formed by people fleeing hardship.
We need to be more aware of our refugee roots, and to ask older people for their memories of the stories of our roots. Again, a reminder that this must include internal movements, including the thousands, no, millions of Filipinos who sought to escape rural
poverty, swelling the populations of cities so that today, we speak of megacities, “Manila” now spilling out of “Metro Manila” as far north as Pampanga, and as far south as Batangas.
We think only of young people seeking a new life but in the last two or three decades, we have seen people choosing to retire in another country. They are also refugees in a sense, people in search of a climate than is more comfortable for the elderly, as well as countries where the standard of living is lower, allowing them to stretch their retirement pay or pensions, especially for healthcare. The Philippines is one of many countries trying to attract such “geriatric refugees.”
All kinds of new terms have been coined to describe the different types of refugees—for example, environment refugees and climate refugees, who were forced out of their original homes because of disasters. Another term, sexual and gender minority refugees, refers to people who leave their home countries because they face persecution for their sexual orientation or gender.
Somewhat related, but of a different category, are people who leave out of love. You read right: love. Societies are notorious for creating rules on who can love (and, by extension, marry) whom, the barriers based on religion, caste, class, and ethnicity. And always, there will be people who dare to break these rules. Cast out of their families or communities, they might choose to leave, which again makes them refugees.
One of my favorite love stories comes from a history book, Ma. Luisa Camagay’s “Working Women of Manila in the 19th Century.” In one of the chapters of the book, devoted to “mujeres publicas” (public women, or sex workers), Camagay mentions how these women would be arrested and exiled to Mindanao. In the historical records she reviewed, she found a peculiar case of one such mujer publica who was about to be shipped out to Mindanao when a man, presumably her lover, showed up to declare that he wanted to be sent into exile with her. The authorities apparently allowed him to, and I would like to think they lived happily ever after, even if in exile.
My talk in Tokyo was about refugees leaving, and coming home. Memories of life “back home” meant that many refugees lived out the rest of their lives with heavy hearts, even as they began to accept the reality that returning home was to remain an elusive dream.
During the open forum at the University of Tokyo, I asked about Filipino women who had married Japanese men and settled in Japan. How many of them, I asked, were thinking of returning to the Philippines to retire?
The consul-general was there and said her impression was that many now considered Japan their home, especially because of their children who, because they were raised in Japan, were even less likely to want to go to the Philippines to live.
When you think about it, it is love that eventually makes refugees settle down, and settle in, to the point that even if they can return to their original homeland, they talk about “visiting,” and about how they will have to “return home,” which will now be Japan, with family.
The erstwhile refugees often love their new homelands much more deeply than the “originals.” Rizal and many reformists and revolutionaries in the 19th century had Chinese blood and dared to expropriate the term “Filipino,” which was originally used to refer to Spaniards born in the Philippines, to include mestizos and indios.
There are many untold stories of refugees, stories that continue to unfold, of fleeing home, and creating new homes. When we understand how we all are refugees, descended from people who fled home, and found new homes, we might be more open to new waves of refugees seeking sanctuary on our shores.
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