“They hope to tell the world about the boundless love that returned to the remaining boat people their inalienable human dignity. That boundless love is none other than the Philippines’ undiscriminating embrace.”
That moving statement is in a document written on behalf of the Vietnamese boat people who had chosen to permanently settle in the Philippines. I shed Filipino tears when it was read at the inauguration of Vietville in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan in 1998.
For so long, the Vietnamese refugees were without a country. There was no room for them in the inn. It was the Philippines that made their long wait bearable. It was, in fact, the Philippines that gave many Vietnamese boat people a permanent home after the refugee camps were closed and when no country out there had space for them at that time.
Today marks the 40th year since the so-called Fall of Saigon. On April 30, 1975, the capital city of South Vietnam fell to the communist North Vietnamese forces and marked the end of the Vietnam War in which the United States was massively involved. Millions of Vietnamese (civilians and soldiers from opposite sides) and Americans lost their lives in that internecine war that wounded and scarred several generations.
But even before that fateful day in 1975 came, boatloads had already been sailing to Philippine shores across the West Philippine Sea from Vietnam. Countless died at sea and the thousands who survived spent years at the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) camps in Morong, Bataan, and in Puerto Princesa. The Philippines provided a home for many Vietnamese even long after the camps were finally closed in the 1990s.
There are countless photographs, documentaries, books and movies on that bloody chapter in world history, even a long-running musical abroad that has been showcasing Filipino talents. As long as survivors of that senseless war are alive, stories will continue to be told.
I think about these while similar scenarios continue to unfold, this time not here in Southeast Asia but on distant shores. Refugees from war-torn countries continue to head out on rickety boats and defy the hostile elements to escape war, hunger and disease at home.
Refugees from North Africa cross the Mediterranean Sea to get to Italy and Spain, countries that are beginning to feel the strain of taking in new arrivals. Refugees from that part of the world even head to as far as Australia.
What they must go through in order to board refugee boats is drama in itself—paying their way, preparing for the perilous voyage, leaving loved ones, etc. But what goes on while they are on the high seas is something else. It is a matter of survival of the fittest. Who finally gets to that glimmering shore? Who gets plucked out of the turbulent sea? Who gets thrown out? Thousands have died in mishaps at sea.
Heartbreaking is the recent news about Muslim refugees throwing out of the boat the Christians among them. A CNN report said: “Muslims who were among migrants trying to get from Libya to Italy in a boat this week threw 12 fellow passengers overboard—killing them—because the 12 were Christians, Italian police said Thursday.
“Italian authorities have arrested 15 people on suspicion of murdering the Christians at sea, police in Palermo, Sicily said…
“The original group of 105 people left Libya on Tuesday in a rubber boat. Sometime during the trip north across the Mediterranean Sea, the alleged assailants—Muslims from the Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal—threw the 12 overboard, police said.”
Another report described how some 1,000 illegal immigrants, mostly Kurds, were allowed to land in Italy after they threatened to throw babies into the sea if their boat Monica was turned back. When the Coast Guard found them, they dangled the babies over the waters.
An Italian immigration official said on television that the influx of illegal immigrants or refugees is a problem that shouldn’t be Italy’s alone, but should be the concern of the European Union. How do you suddenly integrate thousands of new arrivals from an alien culture?
On the subject of refugees during World War II, early this month CNN showed a documentary on the Jewish refugees who came to the Philippines in the late 1930s. President Manuel L. Quezon laid out the welcome mat for more than a thousand of them who wanted to escape almost certain death in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. No one wanted them.
While watching the moving docu, I thought about the Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines who had nowhere to go after the UNHCR camps were closed down for good. I did write a two-part series on how the Catholic bishops built them a village—Vietville, it was called—in Puerto Princesa. But their hearts had always been set on other places, the United States preferably.
I asked our Inquirer correspondent in Palawan, Dempto Anda, about the present state of Vietville. The place is no longer what it used to be, he said, and the Vietnamese have all but left. With a pang of regret, I thought that like the oppressed Jews who found a home in the Philippines when they had nowhere to go (they settled in the United States after World War II), many Vietnamese to whom we had given homes also left for better climes.
Ah, I mused, we Filipinos are so accommodating. We always have an extra room, an extra plate. We say, There will be enough, we can add water to the soup. But these welcomed aliens eventually leave because they think there are better places than our 7,100 islands.
Those who stay behind and for good, or those who come seeking the good, find treasures they were not looking for.
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