MANILA - History can attest to the fact that the Philippines was ahead of its time in recognizing the plight of refugees and the politically persecuted, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
This is most significant now, with the government’s recent statements on the plight of the Rohingya boat people, UNHCR Representative in the Philippines Bernard Kerblat told ANC.
With the country’s history of helping refugees, amid its own economic limitations, it stands on moral high ground to sway other nations to save the lives of the most persecuted indigenous peoples in the world today, he said.
“We take note of the very encouraging, courageous, and principled statement issued by the Philippines,” he said, referring to the position taken by several government officials that the Philippines will not send back to sea the Rohingya boat people, unlike what some of its ASEAN neighbors did.
Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand now say they are willing to take in the boat people for a year.
Kerblat stressed it’s highly unlikely that the boats carrying more than 3,000 refugees will reach Philippine shores.
Nonetheless, “what’s important now is - if we want to save lives in the next few days, it’s precisely to support the courageous and unique position taken by the government of the Philippines, which has indicated at looking for options to help.”
He noted the Philippines has the necessary legislative framework to take in the refugees, starting with the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940. Section 47-B of the law provides that the president can invoke his power to accept the refugees “for humanitarian reasons, and when not opposed to the public interest, to admit aliens who are refugees for religious, political, or racial reasons, in such classes of cases and under such conditions as he may prescribe.”
“If the Philippine president invokes this, makes an offer or suggestion to states in the region and neighbors with whom the Philippines enjoys good relationships… that [the Philippines] is willing to make a symbolic gesture of taking in, say 50… imagine the moral impact that this statement would make to people/member states confronted with the issue,” he said.
He noted he also heard a suggestion from Justice Secretary Leila de Lima herself for a joint coalition of the willing “to pool Navy assets together” to search for the boats, which some fear have gone missing.
World respects the Philippines
Kerblat noted the 1940 law was even implemented years before other nations came together to define what a refugee is and how they can help them.
He said the Philippines, albeit not a rich country, has always been a generous nation.
He said he hopes that the government will someday introduce to the education curriculum at least two hours to tell students the role of the Philippines in securing refugees over the decades.
A lot of people already know that the Philippines helped the Jews during the World War 2, and the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.
Not a lot of Filipinos know, however, that the Philippines also offered refuge to the “White Russians,” he said.
According to The Saga of the White Russians Refugees in the Philippines by Ricardo Suarez Soler, the stateless “rabid anti-communists” White Russians living in China had to flee the state out of fear they will be persecuted.
Kerblat said, “the only nation which responded to their call for distress was a two-year-old nation, barely independent and busy with the reconstruction from the Second World War, busy with setting up its own institutions and spontaneously and generously under the leadership of President Quirino - the only nation that said, ‘yes, come over,’ – was the Philippines.”
Kerblat, who has been in the Philippines for years now and has seen how the country has internationalized its famed “bayanihan” spirit, said “Hats off to you. Thank you, Philippines.”
He said the White Russians stayed in Guiuan, Eastern Samar – whose own people were displaced decades later because of super typhoon Yolanda.
He said this is why many rushed to help Guiuan.
“The UNHCR, the [International Organization for Migration], and many other organizations – we bow with respect to the traditional spirit of hospitality that our kababayans are sharing,” he said.
Kerblat believes the Philippines will not disappoint the Rohingyans.
“We need to stop death, we need to find a mechanism for these people to disembark… Leave aside politics for now, let’s concentrate on the humanitarian side. They are human beings, they are not criminals,” Kerblat appealed to the international community.
The Philippines is expected to join a regional meeting on May 29 to address the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.