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From White Russians to Afghan nationals: Delving into the Philippines’ refugee policy

With the arrival of Afghan refugees in the Philippines, the country finds its refugee policy still needing refinement.

The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, culminating in the fall of the country’s capital on August 15, has caused tens of thousands of Afghans to desperately flee from persecution and violence. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees globally, with 2.2 million in Iran and Pakistan.

Filippo Grandi, UNHCR commissioner, repeatedly appealed for countries to open their borders and to provide immediate and sustained assistance for Afghan refugees fleeing abroad. Some nations have since welcomed refugees into their borders and the United Nations (UN) has received over USD 1.2 billion in emergency pledges from donors, which includes the Philippines, to help Afghans experiencing an escalating humanitarian crisis in their home country. 

Historical precedent

On September 8, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced the arrival of Afghan refugees seeking protection in the country. This was after Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque earlier assured that the Philippines “will not hesitate to admit individuals fleeing their homelands because of fear of persecution,” recalling the country’s long history of accepting refugees. 

University of the Philippines Asian Center Professor Dr. Joefe Santarita and University of Manchester Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Ria Sunga trace the historical tradition of accepting refugees in the Philippines to the arrival of 800 White Russians fleeing from supporters of the Socialist Revolution in 1917.

Meanwhile, the second wave of refugees arrived in the Philippines in 1934 and was composed of around 30,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi Germany. They were welcomed into the country through then-President Manuel Quezon’s “open-door” immigration policy. Santarita, who specializes in migration studies, explains that the acceptance of the Jewish would later lead to Quezon’s issuance of Commonwealth Act No. 613, which would later serve as the basis for the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940. 

The Spanish Republicans who escaped the Spanish Civil War in 1939 made up the third wave and were accepted into the Philippines mainly because of the Commonwealth Government’s emphasis on absolute neutrality to reestablish peace with Spain.  

Meanwhile, the 30,000 Chinese Kuomintang refugees were the fourth wave received by the Philippines. Santarita argues that the acceptance of the refugees who escaped the Chinese Civil War and arrived after the enactment of the Philippine Immigration Act empowered institutions and agencies to allow the naturalization of Chinese immigrants and foreign nationals.

In the 50s, another 6,000 Russians were welcomed by the Elpidio Quirino administration—the fifth refugee wave. “When the United Nations asked for states to admit Russians…who were escaping China, Quirino was the only one who actually said ‘yes,’” Sunga explains. 

However, she points out that “Quirino accepted the Russian refugees as long as the Philippines doesn’t spend a penny and the UN takes care of them.”

From 1975 to 1992, the Vietnamese who fled from the Vietnam War were welcomed and allowed by the Philippine government to farm and fish in their refugee camps, according to Santarita, and that a task force was created to assist the sixth wave of refugees.

In 1981, the Philippines became a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. Both international treaties, which were administered by the UNHCR, establish refugee rights and responsibilities that are still relevant today.  

The succeeding refugee waves that arrived in the Philippines were stateless Iranians that sought Philippine citizenship after the Iranian revolution, Indo-Chinese that escaped regime changes from their Southeast Asian countries, and East Timorese who escaped the conflict between their home country and Indonesia. 

As for the basis of the procedure for refugee status application in the Philippines, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Division divulges that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Department Circular No. 058 Series of 2012 serves this purpose and outlines recognized refugee benefits.

What’s next?

Among the concerns a country may have while accepting refugees are threats to national security. With regard to this, Santarita puts forward that some refugees may not be bonafide asylum seekers, “These refugees may have some connections also with their counterparts or fellow Afghans who are in the Taliban.”

However, Chief State Counsel George Ortha II assures that reducing security threats is of utmost importance and is done through a referral process where refugee applicants are endorsed to the Bureau of Immigration, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency for vetting. 

Meanwhile, the UNHCR-recognized Emergency Transit Mechanism assists refugees seeking resettlement to a third-party nation with a granted status according to a memorandum of agreement with the Commission. 

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra also assures that once Afghan refugees apply for permanent status, DOJ will also look into their qualifications for international standards. 

As of yet, the Philippines has yet to pass legislation to protect asylum seekers. Despite this, the 1951 Refugee Convention—a UN multilateral treaty—stipulates existing provisions that facilitate the application process of refugees including acquiring the necessary documents, as well as the juridical status and refugee rights. These provisions, Santarita points out, are self-executory in nature and do not need an implementation of legislation. 

Practical affordances, however, are of concern. Accommodation is a recurring problem for asylum seekers as there are no refugee camps. But DOJ assures that arrangements with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, UNHCR, and willing non-governmental organizations can be facilitated for refugees.  

With monetary support also in question, Ortha declares, “We have to calculate also how we will be able to afford to support these asylum seekers; not all of them are well off, not all of them can support themselves while they’re in the Philippines,” emphasizing the number of Afghans the country will take in. 

The different considerations encompassing accepting refugees go beyond its practicalities as it is a political issue, with Sunga positing that considerations regarding refugee rights and benefits may become a grave matter.

“In a time of economic woes, usually people tend to look at noncitizens, they look at migrants as the source of problems in the Philippines,” she reasons.

While the Philippines has welcomed a handful of Afghan refugees, most of them are here for temporary shelter and will be seeking resettlement in another country. As explained, Afghans who only seek a temporary stay do not need to apply for refugee status.

By Patricia Fallarme

By John Robert Lee

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