The Philippines as refuge | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

The Philippines as refuge

In the past days and hours, I have been receiving updates on the Muslim Rohingya refugees who continue to sail in droves from Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Rakhine State to Southeast Asia. They are unwanted even in their country of origin and they are looking to distant shores where they can live in safety and peace.

Much has been written about who they are, why they are, where they come from. The fact is that thousands of the Rohingya have been adrift at sea and looking for shore. Many have died at sea and even on land after disembarkation. Six mass graves have been discovered in Malaysia. Hunger, disease and violence have taken their toll on these hapless refugees who find themselves without a country, without citizenship, without a homeland to call their own.


Much, too, is being said about the Philippines as a country that has taken in, over the centuries, refugees of all races and religions, victims of political persecution and discrimination—from the so-called White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks to the German Jews who were in danger of incineration by the Nazis during World War II and, only three decades ago, the Vietnamese fleeing a war and an imminent communist takeover.

The so-called Indian Sepoy who mutinied against the British troops in the 1700s and refused to leave may not be considered refugees, but they found in the Philippines a home and stayed put in Cainta, Rizal. And over the centuries, there were the Chinese from mainland China in search of greener pastures.


The Philippines may not have turned out to be the country of their dreams compared to the US of A—many left eventually—but during the most difficult time of their lives, the Philippines opened its doors and these islands became a safe haven for them. And those who chose to stay could stay. In the case of the Vietnamese who had nowhere to go when the refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) had to be closed, they were given a place of their own (like Vietville in Palawan) courtesy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

I’d like to think of my beloved country as the refugees’ “first stop” or temporary haven, and if they do not really want to stay for good because their eyes are set on more progressive countries, that is fine. Vaya con Dios.

But with the Rohingya’s plight becoming a problem that needs to be addressed not only by Southeast Asia but the international community, some Philippine officials have spoken up. An official from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said the ARMM could take in some refugees. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has met with UNHCR representative Bernard Kerblat on what position and action the Philippines can take vis-à-vis the Rohingya.

But geographically speaking, the Philippines is quite far from where the boat people are adrift (the Andaman Sea), far from the route they are taking (the Strait of Malacca). The shores along these waters are those of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. And, well, even of India, Bangladesh and Burma, the latter two of which could be the unwanted Rohingya’s homeland but do not want them.

I am told that Burmese authorities do not want to hear the word “Rohingya,” which would mean that these people qualify as Burmese. They’d rather refer to them as Bangladeshi. Sure, they look more like South Asians than Southeast Asians, but should skin color determine a people’s right to a homeland? Here are a million or so ethnic minorities caught in a game of ping-pong.

Tomorrow, a meeting of Southeast Asian country representatives will take place in Malaysia. Their meeting on the refugee issue should result in immediate relief for the Rohingya. Long before this, Philippine officials had made known their soft spot for the refugees.

I had a long lunch conversation with Kerblat during the weekend. He gave the Philippines two thumbs up for its eagerness to step forward to address the plight of the Rohingya. It may not take the form of again opening sites for refugee camps, but the eagerness and willingness are to be emulated, he said.


Concretely, what can the Philippines do? I asked. For starters, Kerblat said, maybe one or two Philippine Coast Guard vessels can help scour the seas and bring the refugees to safety. The Philippines can also offer shelter to even a token number of refugees. It can again show the way without jumping the gun on its Asean neighbors.

I chuckled and said Filipinos are often known to be presentado and adelantado. Kerblat, a Frenchman, understands Filipino ways, having lived and worked here these last six years and being married to Filipino visual artist Vicky Abad of Batanes. (The two were relief workers on the Thai-Cambodian border 30 years ago when they met inside a bunker while shelling was going on. Their two grown sons are now also in the humanitarian field. Kerblat has been in many difficult missions around the world.)

And where is Burma’s “The Lady,” human rights icon and Nobel Peace Prize awardee Aung San Suu Kyi in all these? The former political prisoner who is now a member of parliament has yet to make a concrete stand. Will she or won’t she? Is there much to lose politically if she comes out in favor of the Rohingya?

Kerblat’s latest text-bulletin: “As we celebrate, honor and commemorate the day of UN peacekeepers, a dream came to my mind. I dreamt that the Pambansang Watawat for which Rizal gave his life is now a vector of peace floating in the Andaman Sea rescuing refugees and migrants at the invitation of neighboring states. And, with other member states, contributing their assets around the Gulf of Bengal, [saving] the waves of victims of human trafficking.”


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TAGS: Bangladesh, boat people, myanmar, Refugees, rohingya, United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees
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