IN A MATTER of days if not hours, the Aquino government keeps on changing its stand or remains unsure on whether to give refuge to the “boat people” – from Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh who are both escaping from religious persecution and victims of human trafficking – if their “floating coffin” boats reach the Philippine shores.
Echoing the frantic appeals of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the national labor center Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa urged Aquino to categorically declare that the country would not turn away the “boat people” or push their boats back to sea just like what Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia mercilessly did.
Last Sunday, May 17, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. was quoted as saying that the country, like the three other Asean countries, would “deny admission” to the “boat people” if they are “undocumented” or “don’t have travel documents.”
“Coloma’s statement, which reflects Malacañang’s view, is totally absurd and heartless and devoid of logic,” Josua Mata, Sentro secretary general, said, adding that “persons fleeing from grave and immediate danger and suffering will think first of their safety rather than bringing travel documents. They are escaping, not going to a vacation.”
However, on Monday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assured that the country will extend shelter to the “boat people” as the Philippines is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.
In an apparent correction to Coloma’s bungling, De Lima emphatically clarified that “it’s not accurate that we will not help them just because they are undocumented. Their situation is different and they should be treated differently.”
De Lima also recalled the country’s opening its doors to asylum seekers or refugees or externally displaced persons (EDPs) like the Jewish people from Europe during World War II and the famous “boat people” from Vietnam in the 1970s.
But after only one day, Coloma was again double talking when asked once more if the country would take in the fleeing refugees and migrants: “It is inappropriate to engage in speculation … We will do what is needed and deal with concrete situations as these actually materialize.”
The ambiguity and tentativeness of Coloma – one of President Aquino’s spokespersons – is shared by the Department of Foreign Affairs, when it stated that while it believes in De Lima’s position, the country will have to “balance (its) commitments” to the international conventions “with our interests, economy and security.”
“It’s actually a ‘diplomatese’ or a diplomat’s mumbo jumbo of ‘I don’t know what to do’ or ‘come what may,’” Mata retorted.
Meanwhile, the IOM and the UN agencies warned that the plight of the “boat people” is an actual and worsening humanitarian crisis, and reiterated their appeals to Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, to organize sea search and rescues and stop preventing the thousands of refugees and migrants from landing on their shores.
“People (are) stuck in the high seas, some of them are already lost, some about to be lost. This is a very serious matter, (a) regional crisis,” Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR representative to the Philippines, was reported saying.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who are ethnic and religious minority in Burma, have fled violence, discrimination and abject poverty from their “adopted” homeland and from squalid and pathetic refugee camps on both sides of the Burmese-Bangladeshi border. They soon fell prey to human traffickers in nearby Thailand, where because of the recent clampdown in people-smuggling there, offered (with fees, of course) the refugees with dilapidated boats to go to Malaysia or Indonesia. However, the Rohingya people were shooed away outright or after being given some provisions by the authorities. They were later abandoned by the boat crew and smugglers, leaving the jam-packed boats adrift on the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits.
Save for a few hundreds who have reached land and relative safely, such as those welcomed by the generous people in Aceh, a special region in Indonesia – “returning” the goodwill they received from the world following the devastating tsunami in December 2004 – thousands, many are hungry and sick, are still in their boats floating aimlessly and dangerously in Southeast Asian seas.