Right thing to do
The latest word from Malacañang is that Asian “boat people” who might wash up on Philippine shores will not be turned away. The clarification came on the heels of an earlier report quoting Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma as saying that the Philippines “will have to deny” the boat people admission “if they don’t have travel documents”—a requirement that seemed particularly cruel and pointless given the refugees being talked about: some 3,000 Rohingya who, fleeing hunger and persecution in Burma (Myanmar) where they are considered a stateless ethnic minority, have been stranded at sea for days or weeks without food and water.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima eventually said asking for travel documents from boat people, if and when they do apply for asylum in the Philippines, would not be a requirement, precisely because escaping from their country, often in haste and fear, meant reverting to undocumented status. “Asylum seekers cannot always be expected to obtain travel documents particularly where the agent of persecution is the state. Hence, their situation deserves to be treated and examined in a different context,” she added.
This is the humane, compassionate thing to do when it comes to treating a people who are in supreme, desperate need of immediate aid. So far, with this pronouncement, the Philippines stands as the only nation in Southeast Asia to indicate that it is open to granting some form of refuge and succor to the Rohingya boat people. As many as 6,000 such migrants are currently adrift at sea, denied entry by countries such as Thailand, which, like the Philippines, is plagued by a Muslim insurgency in the south and so is wary of receiving the Muslim Rohingya. But predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia are barring their doors, too, or at most taking in only a trickle of the flood of refugees that await deliverance from their ordeal at sea.
Thailand, despite its rigid refusal to admit the Rohingya, appears to be in a greater position among other Southeast Asian nations to help, if only because many of the refugees were reportedly promised safe passage by smugglers operating a network of human trafficking camps in its jungles. A recent crackdown by Thailand on the people-smuggling trade within its borders appears to be the proximate cause at least of the rickety boat recently found drifting on the Andaman Sea that was crammed with Rohingya migrants. The boat’s engine had been cut by the smugglers, they said, who fled and abandoned them when news of the Thai crackdown went around.
Ten of the refugees had died and been thrown overboard. But, incredibly, the weak and starving rest of them were still not brought ashore. Thailand’s defense ministry dropped food packages around the boat, and basically pushed it back to sea. Malaysia’s navy has similarly turned away migrant boats it had found on its waters. “What do you expect us to do?” Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar was quoted as saying. “We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.”
This issue should be an urgent concern of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of lives are at stake every day that the Asean dithers on what to do with the boat people in its midst. Unfortunately, if other issues like China’s continued encroachment on the West Philippine Sea is any indication, the members of Asean will continue to speak with divergent voices, unable to arrive at a timely enough consensus, let alone a viable one, that would address the current desperate situation with a modicum of shared responsibility and coordination.
And so the Philippines stands alone at this juncture. We are a poor country, with scant resources for our own people, but we have never been known as less than compassionate. We took in thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s and gave them a peaceful haven. Our wartime government under President Manuel Quezon saved thousands of Jews from persecution and certain death. The shocking, heartbreaking images of the Rohingya at sea are something we cannot ignore, even as our neighbors choose to look the other way.
Welcoming a brutalized, traumatized people to our shores is the right thing to do. It’s the Filipino way. For all our faults, we are a kind people. Let us stay that way.
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