A home for the homeless

After media reported that no other Southeast Asian country was willing to take them in, a Philippine official announced that the country would shelter the refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh now adrift at sea.

Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said the country can accept up to 3,000 of the “boat people”, citing the signing by the Philippines of the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees.

He also mentioned that in the 1970s, the Philippines extended similar assistance to some 2,700 refugees from Vietnam fleeing the Vietnam War who were later resettled in other countries.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Buddhist Myanmar. Myanmar claims the Rohingya are mostly migrants from Bangladesh. Many have cast to sea in unseaworthy boats – “floating coffins” - in a bid for freedom, only to be rejected by Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.

 A CNN report online says “the scale of the crisis is still unknown. No organization, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to Rohingya rights groups, knows how many boats there are,” although the number of refugees “is estimated to be in the thousands”.

The tone of some online reports is puzzlement – why are Filipinos going to accept these boat people? Don’t they have enough problems of their own?

We can rattle off several justifications – religion (Coloma: “As the only predominantly Catholic nation in Southeast Asia, it is our duty to provide succor to those in need”), law (1951 UN convention on refugees), and human rights (Justice Secretary Leila de Lima: “First thing is the humanitarian concern, saving lives”) – but the point is that we as a nation cannot call ourselves moral and just if we merely stand by and let these people drown when we can very well rescue them.

We can also look to Philippine culture for motivations. Among our highly-regarded values of hospitality and pity (awa). Guests are treated as lavishly as our means allow. Foreign travelers are constantly amazed by the warmth with which they are welcomed; thus they overlook shortcomings in facilities because their experiences are made special and memorable by the friendliness and above-and-beyond sort of help extended by Filipinos. The boat people, we might say, are just some kind of travelers we can accommodate.  

 Pity is another highly-regarded value. Someone who resists an appeal to charity is labeled hard-hearted or heartless (walang puso). Somehow being a good Samaritan is in the Filipino DNA, regardless of religious affiliation or background. Sharing our blessings comes naturally; even the poorest people still manage to divide their meager meals or share their huts with those more afflicted than themselves. 

In addition to these, Filipinos have a sympathy for the underdog (api or inapi), because that’s how we often view ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.

 The persecuted, the downtrodden, the oppressed – we have been all these at various points in our history, and it requires no inordinate stretch of the emotions for us to support, protect, and defend the abused.

 Having made the important decision to take in the displaced Rohingya, it’s now time to get practical. Preparations now need to be made to receive them. Where and how? Morong, Bataan again, where we set up camps for the displaced Vietnamese decades ago?

Our countrymen in the Visayas are still reeling in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, and many areas in Leyte and other affected locations have not fully recovered. How are we going to manage all the ongoing recovery programs and add yet another project?

Where will supplies of food, water, shelter, and medicines come from? In addition to medical aid, therapy should also be made available to treat those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological concerns.

Who will provide safety and security? Displaced persons living in camps are vulnerable to rape, human trafficking, and prostitution – these traumas should not be added to the persecution and homelessness that these refugees are already suffering.

All these are logistical problems that should not be all that difficult to solve. Sheltering 3,000 refugees is going to be a tall order for the Philippines, but government, in cooperation with private charitable organizations, should be able to handle it.

 “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” wrote poet Emma Lazarus, lines rather apt for this situation as the Philippines opens its heart and hands to those seeking safe harbor.

The government’s move to welcome these displaced persons makes me proud to be a Filipino. If anyone still doubts whether this is the right thing to do, they should remember that it’s now our turn to help others, as we ourselves have been given a hand by the world during our interminable bouts with typhoons, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

It’s time for us to pay it forward.


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