MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Philippines on Monday, May 18, said it is open to sheltering up to 3,000 "boat people" from Myanmar and Bangladesh as other Southeast Asian countries rejected these refugees.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr also denied a newspaper report that said the Philippines "will push back to sea" these boat people, in a humanitarian crisis that has alarmed the United Nations (UN).
In a statement, Coloma pointed out that the Philippines signed 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."
Coloma said that by signing the 1951 convention, the Philippines "manifested its solidarity with the UN in providing succor and relief to persons involuntarily displaced from their homelands as a consequence of political conflict."
"We shall continue to do our share in saving lives under existing and long-standing mechanisms pursuant to our commitments under the convention," Coloma said.
He also noted that the Philippines "has extended humanitarian assistance to 'boat people' and had even established a processing center for Vietnamese travelers in the seventies."
Coloma was referring to around 2,700 Vietnamese boat people who sought refuge in Philippines in the 1970s. These boat people, who fled their country after the Vietnam War, temporarily stayed in Palawan in the Philippines and later got resettled in other countries.
The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs, for its part, has not issued an official statement on the current refugee crisis.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday, May 17, said he was increasingly concerned by the humanitarian crisis sparked by refugees stranded in boats in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have sparked outrage by turning away vessels overloaded with migrants from Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya minority and with poor Bangladeshis. (READ: Refugees in Southeast Asia: Should the Philippines care?)
The UN has labeled the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. (READ: Rescued Rohingya in Aceh: 'We do not have a home')
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.
Things have worsened since 2012, when clashes with Buddhists left more than 200 people dead and tens of thousands of Rohingya in squalid refugee camps.
'Humane treatment' for 'boat people'
On Monday, Coloma issued his statement in reaction to a report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer titled, "PH to push boat people back to sea."
In a phone interview with Rappler, Coloma denied that the Philippines "will push back to sea undocumented Asian 'boat people'" as the Inquirer reported on Monday.
Coloma cited the comment of Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Siegfredo Mison, which the Inquirer quoted.
Mison pointed out that the Philippines signed that UN Convention on Civil and Human Rights.
In a text message to Coloma, Mison said: "If boat people claim and qualify as refugees or asylum seekers, immigration will allow entry. Otherwise, we will have to deny admission if they don't have travel documents."
In a separate statement on Monday, however, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima clarified that asylum seekers "cannot always be expected to obtain travel documents particularly where the agent of persecution is the state."
"Hence, their situation deserves to be treated and examined in a different context," De Lima said. (READ: Travel docs 'not expected' from boat people – PH)
At the same time, Coloma emphasized that the Philippines "has accorded humane treatment to 'boat people' and even established a refugee processing center in Morong, Bataan."
The UN's refugee agency, in fact, hailed the Philippines in November 2012 "for being the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to establish a procedure to protect both refugees and stateless people."
Bernard Kerblat, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said this mechanism "is a testament to the genuine humanitarian spirit in the Philippines."
The UNHCR referred to the circular issued by the Philippine Department of Justice in October 2012 on granting a person a "refugee or stateless" status.
"The refugees and the stateless persons are the most vulnerable. They fall easily through the cracks of our system," Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said in 2012.
She added: "The enjoyment of basic human rights and freedoms should never be dependent on the presence or absence of a person's nationality or his affinity to his country. The universality of human rights and the respect thereof demands a standard of treatment from the government that is not only tolerant but accepting and inclusive." – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.