THE Philippine government (through separate statements from Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose) has expressed its willingness to admit and shelter the Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis should their boats land on Philippine shores. The three government officials cited the Philippine commitment to honor the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. They recalled that during World War II the Philippine Commonwealth government granted asylum to 1,500 Jewish refugees and that, after the end of the Vietnam War, the Philippines accommodated the Vietnamese boat people at processing centers in Palawan and Bataan.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, praised the declaration of the government, which, he said, has “a moral obligation to do so.” The Philippines also won praise from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Ambassador of Bangladesh to Manila expressed his government’s gratitude to the Philippine government.
The Rohingya consists of refugees from Bengal who settled down in Burma (now Myanmar) many years ago. Reported to be numbering about 1.3 million, the Rohingya Muslims are stateless since the mainly Buddhist Myanmar has refused to grant them citizenship. To escape poverty, discrimination and persecution, the Rohingya and impoverished Bangladeshis are fleeing by the boatloads to seek shelter in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Overcoming earlier resistance, the three countries have now agreed to provide temporary shelter to the migrant people on the condition that their repatriation and resettlement process by the international community will be done in one year.
The initial 17-nation meeting on May 29 in Bangkok, Thailand, to address the Rohingya migrant crisis has resulted in disarray since Myanmar refused to internationalize the issue and to take full responsibility for the fleeing people.
There is more to the situation than meets the eye. This could be deduced from the statement of DFA spokesperson Jose that “we have to balance our commitments with our interests, economy and security.” It is worth recalling in this regard the Philippine experience regarding the Vietnamese boat people. As Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs in the DFA from July 1997 until May 1999, I dealt with the issue of the Remaining Vietnamese Nationals (RVNs) in the Philippines. The RVNs were allowed to remain in the Philippines until “durable solutions” are worked out. To arrive at such solutions, it has to be determined that generally-accepted principles embodied in international conventions are consonant with Philippine laws and regulations. This situation arose in August 1998 when the CBCP, through then-Bishop Ramon Arguelles recommended that the RVNs be granted permanent residency in the Philippines through an Executive Order signed by then-President Joseph Estrada.
The task of responding to the CBCP fell on my office. In the letter that we prepared for DFA Secretary Domingo L. Siazon, Jr., the following were emphasized:
“Under its generally accepted definition, to which the Philippines subscribes, a refugee must be able to establish that he has left his country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion and/or membership in a particular social group, and is unable to or unwilling to return to his country, or invoke its protection, because of such fear. In its 1st Indorsement dated “““May 31, 1998, the Department of Justice (DOJ) stated that the Bureau of Immigration (BI) has “screened out” or disqualified the RVNs for the grant of refugee status “on the ground that they do not have a well-founded fear of persecution by reason of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. On appeal, the Appeals Board composed of representatives from, among others, the DOJ and the Office of the President and the DFA, affirmed the decision of the BI. The issuance of an Executive Order granting RVNs permanent resident status would disregard the unfavorable action of the Appeals Board and would have no basis under our existing laws.”
“The Department of Justice also stated that, although “the provisions of Section 47 (a) (2) of the Philippine
Immigration Act of 1940, as amended, authorize the President of the Philippines to admit, when public interest warrants, non-immigrants not otherwise provided for by the act who are coming for a temporary period, the continued stay of the RVNs does not involve public interest. The Philippine government has always emphasized that the RVNs were allowed to stay in the country temporarily for humanitarian reasons. Their permanent settlement was never envisioned.
In addition to the opinion rendered by the DOJ, the DFA letter stated that “the issuance of an Executive Order would set a dangerous precedent that could be detrimental to Philippine interest. This could open the floodgate, resulting in the influx to the Philippines of other nationalities who could similarly lay claim to permanent residency for economic reasons. While I wholeheartedly agree with you that our compassionate regard for refugees has earned for our country and our people the respect and admiration of the world, any self-respecting and patriotic Filipino will not be willing to sacrifice the national interest.”
The bottomline in our participation to resolve the Rohingya issue is OUR NATIONAL INTEREST. THE PHILIPPINES SHOULD NEVER BECOME A RESETTLEMENT COUNTRY.