The Aquino administration has yet another policy schizophrenia on what to do with the Rohingya boat people crisis. Last Monday, newspaper reports quoted Presidential Spokesman Herminio Coloma saying that the Rohingya boat people will be “pushed back to sea.” Coloma made this remark in the context that today’s modern boat people do not possess travel documents. Under existing immigration laws, the country can ordinarily refuse entry to undocumented aliens or those without travel documents.
Then yesterday, another alter ego of the President, Justice Secretary Leila De Lima suggested sending rescue boats to the distraught boat people. According to her, “it would be a good gesture if we send a rescue ship or two along with other Asean neighbors and it should be a concerted effort, a regional action.” She clarified, however, that this was only a “suggestion” as the issue should be decided by “government officials at the highest level.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement stating that we have to balance our obligations under our treaty obligations with “our interests, economy and security.” This sounds suspiciously similar to the position of Thailand and Malaysia in refusing entry to today’s boat people.
There should never have been conflicting positions, to begin with. As a party to the 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees, we are duty bound to accept and provide humanitarian assistance to those who have crossed national boundaries owing to a well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands. Our duty is to accept them and we cannot turn them away even if they are illegal refugees. Further, under the Palermo Convention and its protocols, we also have the duty to provide for the protection of trafficked persons.
According to the United Nations, the Rohingya Muslims are today among the most “persecuted” minorities in the world. Largely based in Myanmar, the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims are considered as illegal settlers in the predominantly Buddhist country. Recently, one of the biggest scandals that rocked Thailand was an expose that members of the group are being employed there literally as slaves made to work in exchange for food and lodging.
The problem today is that countries such as Australia and the states constituting the EU have insisted that they cannot afford the material and political costs of admitting modern-day boat people in their territory. Australia has consistently refused entry to boat people opting to process and detain them in an offshore island. The EU, despite its proven commitment to human rights, has also tightened its border controls and has also refused entry to boat people from Africa. The EU now has to contend with the fall-out arising from a sinking of one such boat with at least 700 casualties. Increasingly, more and more countries, Thailand and Malaysia included, have refused entry to refugees precisely on the same grounds mentioned by our DFA, to wit: “national interests, economy and security.”
In fairness to De Lima, she was clear that her opinion to render humanitarian assistance to the modern-day boat people was only a recommendation. This has not prevented UN officials from praising our country for making what in reality, is a non-offer. And while the Justice Secretary appears to be rather influential in this administration since she defied the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order barring the Executive Branch from preventing the departure of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo early on in PNoy’s term; her recommendations, like her opinion that the CA TRO on the ouster of Mayor Jun Jun Binay as Mayor of Makati, is, to quote her, “merely recommendatory.” In short, we still have to come up with an official policy on whether we will assist Southeast Asia’s modern boat people.
The Philippines opened its territory in the 1970s to the hordes of Vietnamese people fleeing the repressive communist regime in Hanoi. We did so then out of compliance with our treaty commitments and out of compassion. While we could not accept the Vietnamese as refugees into our territory, we agreed to process them until other countries could accept them as refugees. If we did it then, I see no reason why we cannot do this anew for the Rohingya Muslims.
It’s a cardinal principle under international law that in default of further legal basis, mankind shall continue to be protected by public international law, the dictates of conscience and the laws of humanity. To Asia’s only Christian nation, admitting today’s boat people is to walk the talk that Christians will give homes to the homeless.
Let’s hope PNoy finds the heart to walk the talk.