PH weighs ‘big population’ in helping boat people

Paterno Esmaquel II
PH weighs ‘big population’ in helping boat people
'We need to balance our international commitments and our national interest,' the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs says

MANILA, Philippines – While the Philippines’ “broad policy statement” is to help refugees, the Southeast Asian country said it needs to consider its huge population in the case of Asia’s “boat people.” 

In an interview on ABS-CBN on Tuesday, May 19, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Charles Jose pointed out that the Philippines already “has a big population,” and needs to weigh if it can accommodate more people.

“We need to balance our international commitments and our national interest,” Jose said in the vernacular.

The Philippines has around 100 million people, while Asia’s boat people, mostly from Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya minority, have been estimated at around 3,000.

A survey shows more than half of Filipino families consider themselves poor, while around 1.1 million Filipinos work abroad. 

At the same time, the United Nations (UN) considers the plight of the boat people as a humanitarian crisis in the Southeast Asian region. (READ: UN chief voices growing concern over migrant crisis)

Jose said the Philippines, in any case, will comply with its obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The UN describes this as “the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights, and the legal obligations of states.”

‘Many things’ to clarify

Jose explained: “There are still so many things that have to be clarified, that have to be discussed in more detail and be threshed out. But broadly speaking, we are saying that we have a commitment, and we intend to honor this commitment.”

The Philippines has not specified how exactly it will help the refugees. Neither has it clarified its stance on the migrant crisis.

The DFA spokesman issued Tuesday’s statement after one of the Philippine president’s spokesmen, Herminio Coloma Jr, said the Philippines is open to sheltering hundreds of boat people.

Despite this, Filipinos criticized their government for supposedly requiring the boat people to present travel documents before the Philippines could shelter them. 

Later, Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima clarified that asylum seekers, such as the boat people, “cannot always be expected to obtain travel documents, particularly where the agent of persecution is the state.” 

The UN has labeled the Rohingya as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Myanmar brands its 1.3 million Rohingya as foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh, imposing oppressive restrictions and denying them citizenship, despite many having roots going back generations. (READ: Rescued Rohingya in Aceh: ‘We do not have a home’)

De Lima, a former chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, also described the plight of the boat people as “a humanitarian crisis that calls for humanitarian measures.” – with reports from Agence France-Presse/ 

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at