Too many DFAs | Inquirer Opinion

Too many DFAs

12:10 AM June 09, 2015

THE CURRENT issue involving the Asian “boat people” highlights a serious problem in our country. We do not speak with one voice when it comes to foreign policy.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima started it all, followed by Malacañang, and even the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, all of them stating that the boat people from Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) are welcome in the Philippines. The proponents of this initiative should have at least paused and considered why Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were reluctant to take in these refugees.


The major problem is the definition of a refugee. The First World and Third World countries cannot agree on who should be classified as such. The United Nations has not come up with a definition that will be acceptable to both sides.

The developing countries want to define as refugees all those who flee their home country for whatever reason (except those charged with crimes). On the other hand, the developed countries want to limit the term only to those fleeing political persecution. This definition excludes “economic refugees”—that is, people who leave their homeland in search of a better life abroad. Since the countries of final asylum are the developed countries, it is their definition that counts.


This background explains why our Asean neighbors are dragging their feet in receiving these boat people. The Rohingya from Myanmar, except those with criminal records, should qualify as refugees. They are persecuted in their home country. However, the boat people from Bangladesh will have a difficult time getting resettled because they will be classified as economic refugees.

If we welcome all these boat people to the Philippines, we may get stuck indefinitely with the refugees from Bangladesh. We can end up using the meager resources intended for our destitute countrymen for the benefit of these economic refugees. At some point, they can even end up competing with our jobless countrymen for the limited jobs available in our country.

The current boat people cannot be compared with the Vietnamese boat people the Philippines welcomed in the 1970s. The Vietnamese were clearly political refugees. They were fleeing the communist regime which had taken over Vietnam. Many of them would have ended up in concentration camps or been executed. We actually provided only a temporary haven for the Vietnamese on their way to countries of final refuge. This may not be the case now with the refugees from Bangladesh.

The recent discovery of mass graves, most likely of refugees, in Thailand and Malaysia indicate that human trafficking syndicates are involved in the crisis. This is an additional problem. The statements by our officials welcoming these refugees becomes an invitation to these traffickers to operate in the Philippines.

Instead of making hasty statements welcoming refugees to the Philippines, we can play a more constructive role by joining other countries in pressuring both Myanmar and Bangladesh to take care of their own people. Unless the two countries do their part, there will be an endless flow of these refugees.

We can speak from the moral high ground on this issue. We are currently debating the Bangsamoro Basic Law to ensure fair treatment of our Muslim minority. Myanmar should be called upon to do the same. It is a member of the United Nations, and it must abide with UN conventions on the treatment of minorities. With respect to Bangladesh, it has an oversupply of labor. It should learn how to export its excess labor in an orderly manner. The Philippines has been doing that for over 50 years now. It does not set loose overseas Filipino workers as boat people; it does not dump them in its neighbor’s backyard.

Justice Secretary De Lima made a follow-up initiative that Asean should “send rescue ships for the refugees in a concerted effort, a regional action” (Inquirer, 5/21/15). This is a far-reaching initiative. She should note that even the wealthy European Union countries would not put up a joint naval task force to stop the influx of refugees in the Mediterranean coming from Africa. This would have required an indefinite commitment of naval assets in the Mediterranean. The EU countries realize that the only way to stop these refugees is by proper actions in the countries of origin. The latest report shows that exactly is how this problem is being resolved in our region. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to stem the flow of refugees from their homelands.


Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario apparently does not have control over Philippine foreign policy. Almost anybody with sufficient rank in government can preempt the Department of Foreign Affairs and take foreign policy initiatives. This matter should have been left to the career diplomats in the DFA. The sober and measured response of our Asean neighbors to the refugee crisis indicate that they let their professional diplomats call the shots on this issue. They did it by the book, calling on Myanmar and Bangladesh to stop the flow of refugees.

The problem with our current system of having too many DFAs is that it can cause embarrassment to our country. If our Asean neighbors had agreed to the refugee rescue mission proposed by Secretary De Lima, we may be the first to back out. The limited resources of our Navy and Coast Guard are necessarily devoted to the West Philippine Sea crisis.

Hermenegildo C. Cruz was accredited as Philippine ambassador to the UN in 1984-1986.

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TAGS: Asian “boat people”, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Global Nation, news
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