In his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Rodrigo Duterte announced to a global community what he has been saying to a national audience — that the Philippines is ready to accept Rohingya refugees. Since 2012, the Rohingya have been the target of numerous atrocities, and some 1.3 million of them have fled from the Rakhine State in Myanmar, a predominantly Hindu country, to neighboring Bangladesh, which is mostly Muslim.
The policy of welcoming refugees is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it seems incongruent with how the international media portray President Duterte, who is often criticized for having autocratic tendencies and for his war on illicit drugs. He is lumped together with other so-called strongmen even though they behave differently toward refugees and stateless persons. In fact, the typical policy they follow is to close off their borders to such people.
The second point is that Filipinos should be proud of this country’s long tradition of helping other people. Long before Mr. Duterte became president, the persecuted have found sanctuary in the Philippines, which, like its incumbent leader, has often been criticized falling short on human rights.
To be clear, we are not suggesting that the Philippines has no human rights problems. But the status of the problem has always been influenced by local political rhetoric and, at times, is exaggerated or misunderstood. Not enough attention has been given to the positive deeds of this small country, particularly its record on refugees.
In his UN address, President Duterte alluded to that historical record. He mentioned how the Philippines took in two waves of “White Russians,” who had fled the Reds who came to power in their motherland, first in 1917 and then in 1947 during the presidential term of Elpidio Quirino.
When Manuel Quezon was president, the Philippines also took in two waves of European refugees in the 1930s when the Nazis were persecuting the Jews. Besides the Jewish refugees, President Duterte also mentioned how this country also gave refuge to Iranians in 1979 and to the so-called boat people, mainly from Vietnam, in the late 1960s.
Actually, people from Indochina — today, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — came in several waves. President Duterte did not mention that from 1980 to 1994 alone, some 400,000 from those countries were welcome in this country.
There were other instances when the Philippines offered refuge that were not mentioned by the President. Those gaps can be found on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to it, for instance, the Philippines was among the few countries in 1939 that granted visas to Spanish Republicans fleeing the fascist government of General Francisco Franco. The following year, the Philippines took in 30,000 Chinese who fled the mainland when the Kuomintang government there fell. And lastly, in 2000, President Joseph Estrada took in some 600 asylum seekers from East Timor during that country’s struggle for independence.
Rohingya deserves our help
We support the policy to take in the Rohingya, not because of our proud legacy but because it is the right thing to do. The UNHCR described the situation in Rakhine State as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
President Duterte told the UNGA, “The doors of the Philippines are open, as they have always been, to everyone fleeing for safety, such as the Rohingyas.” He urged other countries to do the same, saying: “Helping the most vulnerable — those displaced by conflict, persecution and political instability — is a shared responsibility of all countries.”
The Philippines is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. And at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum, “the Philippines pledged to develop complementary pathways for admission of the most vulnerable refugees — including the Rohingya — which would allow them to stay in the country until a sustainable and lasting solution to their displacement can be found,” according to the UNHCR.
Clearly, this country’s policy and past actions go beyond international commitments. They are a reflection of our national character. And every Filipino should be proud of that.