By Jing Dalagan
This article first appeared in the December 2015 edition of the IHEYO Youth Speak newsletter.
I remember watching a documentary on CNN about the Philippines adopting refugees. These refugees were, at that time, escaping from the Holocaust. The Philippine president at that time, Manuel L. Quezon, authorized the shipping of Jewish refugees, with the help of paperwork secured by their financial backers, who were also businessmen. The country decided to help the refugees despite a poor economic condition. This is one of the earliest records of the country accepting refugees.
A couple of months ago, the Philippines agreed to take in the Rohingya refugees. It was assumed that these people are supposedly smuggled out of their respective countries – Myanmar and Bangladesh – only to be abandoned by the smuggler. Various ASEAN member-countries refused to take in these “stateless people”. Human Rights Watch then called out on current Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, reminding him that that Philippines are a signatory on the UN Human Convention on Refugees. That should be reason enough to at least rescue these Rohingya refugees from starvation and further getting ostracized.
Human trafficking is already an issue that has yet to be solved, not only in Asia, but all over the world. But an abandoned ship (literally), needed help, not only because some of them already died aboard, but because there was still life left to be saved.
Filipinos are often considered to be ‘soft-hearted.’ Some people view this trait as a sign of weakness. This is because some laws are adjusted and analyzed to fit the needs of people according to circumstances. Then again, laws are laws. Laws are supposed to give people with fewer resources an equal footing in opportunities. However, there are instances where the law becomes a convenient excuse to arrest first and help later.
This is not an excuse to overlook the law in hopes of extending help to people like the Rohingya refugees. But the best laws are enacted in the hope that everyone in need – not just everyone perceived to be in need – get the help they deserve. In other words, the law should apply to everyone. Not just to people like the Rohingyas, but also to the people who promised to uphold the law and were discovered of abusing their authority later.
This event has led to the documentation of incidents of human rights’ violations. Human rights’ violations are an issue in the Philippines too. And that boat carrying the Rohingyas is obviously not the only boat that has carried refugees to our country. We have several overstaying nationals here too. But it’s not an excuse to refuse help to those who deserve it.
I can imagine some “nationalists” claiming “We don’t have enough food for ourselves and we even welcome outsiders?” However, I believe that we have a legacy of sharing. The Philippines hasn’t gone out of foreign occupation. But Quezon thought of giving help to refugees, not only because he found it right to do so, but because he was appalled at how other, more progressive nations, could turn a blind eye to acts of charity. Back in the 40s, the Jewish refugees were so thankful in the gesture, they ended up finding new ways to live and repay their hosts. No refugees are too poor to repay their hosts. I just need to say that, since the common misconception is that most Jewish refugees are from rich families in the West.
As of this writing, the Philippines, through Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose, vowed to share best practices. This was mentioned in a media briefing after the UN regional meeting that Rappler reported. The said report also clarified that it would be “best practices, not material aid”. The basis used was the Philippines’ track record in sheltering refugees like the aforementioned Jewish refugees, and the Vietnamese refugees, decades later.
The regional meeting at Bangkok, Thailand was the closest resolution so far about the Rohingyas and other refugees waiting to be accepted. Being ‘stateless’ is already a problem in itself. But they needed to be cared for, until they are strong enough to decide for themselves whether to go back home, or be granted refugee status and stabilize their sources of income.