A Safe Haven
Last May, the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority took a serious turn when Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand turned away and towed back to sea the boats of sick and starving refugees. An unexpected offer from a country far from the frontlines of the crisis helped changed the situation. The Philippines announced that it was willing to take in up to 3,000 refugees. This humanitarian response provided moral pressure on Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia to eventually allow refugee boats to land on their shores.
The chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said that the offer from a predominantly Christian country like the Philippines to receive Muslim Rohingya refugees challenged the predominantly Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia to open their doors to their fellow Muslim seeking sanctuary and safety.
This was not the first time that the Philippines provided safe haven to persecuted refugees. The country received German Jews at the start of World War II and Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. The religion of the refugees did not matter. They were welcomed and given shelter. When resettlement in other countries was not possible, they were allowed to stay. The Philippines takes seriously its commitment to the UN Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and Stateless People (1954). In 2012 The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) hailed the Philippines as the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to set up a procedure to protect both refugees and stateless people.
As a major migrant sending nation, the Philippines is familiar with the human trafficking, exploitation, and discrimination experienced by its citizens abroad. The country also has many internally displaced persons affected either by war, natural disasters, or poverty. Many Filipinos may not be familiar with the political and religious context of the Rohingya crisis but they could relate with the experience of being displaced and being threatened by unjust structures and more powerful forces.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, spoke of a moral obligation to help refugees. “While it may be true that there is no legal obligation on the part of the Republic of the Philippines or that of any other country to grant asylum to every refugee or displaced person, there is a moral obligation to protect them from the harm they flee from. And by all precepts of morality and decency, there is an obligation not to leave them to the mercilessness of the elements on the high seas,”
As countries in the region begin to take steps to respond to this refugee crisis, there is a need for more examples like that of the Philippines to remind the global community of its duty to help all persons fleeing violence and persecution.