• Dashell C. Yancha-Po

Should the Philippines welcome refugees?

Photo Source: Defense One via Reuters

Sea of humanity in a cramped aircraft.

Such is the image which circulated on social media on August 15, 2021, showing some 640 Afghan evacuees crowding the interior of a US Air Force C-17 aircraft as it left Kabul. The photo is telling of the current situation in Afghanistan after its government collapsed and the Taliban took over Kabul. Afghanistan’s beleaguered President joined the exodus of his fellow citizens, claiming that he left his country to prevent further bloodshed.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan now raises fears of a possible humanitarian crisis, characterized by violence and loss of life, displaced populations, widespread damage to the Afghan society and its economy, among others. Women and children are a particularly vulnerable group, especially now that Taliban’s takeover has raised fears of a return to repressive policies and human rights violations. Such fear remains even as the Taliban leadership says it will now respect the rights of women and ensure press freedom.

Meanwhile, United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres said that the UN will not abandon the people of Afghanistan, further claiming that UN personnel will stay and continue to deliver critical services. This is indeed an opportune time for the UN to walk the talk and reassure skeptics of the world body’s relevance. The international community should as well “stand as one” and concretize the obligations of states inherent in the concept of state sovereignty. State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility of states is the protection of its people – and the peoples who may come to it for assistance.

As the world sees the huge influx of internally displaced persons from Afghanistan, states making up the (sometimes) seemingly abstract concept of international “community” must now operationalize the values and norms embodied in various international human rights instruments, particularly that of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Countries are urged to receive Afghan refugees and refrain from any deportations. The principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction when there are substantial grounds for believing that the individual would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return to his country, must be upheld. The non-refoulement principle is a core principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention and is now considered as a rule of customary international law.

The Philippines and Cambodia are the only member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocol. There have been views that international refugee law is not that well-developed in Asia in general, because states therein believe that the Convention is a “Western” intervention intended for the protection of refugees in the post-World War II European context. In particular, ASEAN member states have been hesitant to formally tackle refugee-related issues on its agenda because such might be considered as breach of the much-edified principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, as enshrined in the ASEAN Charter. Thus, even while the 1967 Protocol seemingly cured the geographic and time limitation set in the 1951 Refugee Convention, there have been no additional ratifications among ASEAN member states because of these perceptions. Nonetheless, the ASEAN has adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration which provides that “Every person has the right to seek and receive asylum in another State in accordance with the laws of such State and applicable international agreements.” The member states also have their own domestic laws pertaining to the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

A couple of days ago, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that the Philippines is willing to accept refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Indeed, the Philippines has a long tradition of offering asylum to refugees forced to flee their countries on account of war, conflict, and persecution. As can be gleaned from the country’s history, the Philippines has offered refuge to the “White Russians”, Jews, Spanish Republicans, Chinese, Vietnamese “boat people”, Iranians, Indo-Chinese, East Timorese refugees, and the Rohingyas. Philippine jurisprudence has also upheld the principles of the Refugee Convention. For instance, in the case of Republic v Karbasi, G.R. No. 210412 (July 29, 2015), the Supreme Court had the occasion to reiterate the country’s obligation under Article 34 of the 1951 Convention which states that “[T]he Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.” As a matter of fact, just last year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) commended the efforts of the Supreme Court in establishing a new committee to accelerate naturalization for refugees and stateless people in the country. The Special Committee on Facilitated Naturalization for Refugees and Stateless Individuals is tasked to finalize the draft rules developed by the Philippine Government’s Access to Justice Cluster of the Inter-Agency Steering Committee on the Protection of Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Stateless Persons to facilitate judicial naturalization for refugees and stateless people in the country, thereby laying the foundations for refugees and stateless persons to acquire Philippine citizenship.

Comes now the question on the implications of the country’s acceptance of refugees in general, and to contextualize the same with our acceptance of refugees from Afghanistan, in particular.

Security and Political implications. Large-scale refugee movements might pose security threats to the receiving state. In the case of the Afghan refugees, fears of reprisals from the Taliban leadership, though unfounded, might be considered as a perceived threat.

While there are risks involved, the better question to ask is whether these risks outweigh the lives that might be saved if the Philippines opens its doors to the refugees. Whose security are we referring to as being threatened? The refugees are thus called because they have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. To perceive or to even consider them as a threat may seem unconscionable at this point. Nonetheless, a closer analysis between forced migration and its security implications should still be part of the policy discourse and decision.

Economic implications. During this time of pandemic where scarce state resources are stretched to the limit, is it really worth stretching it further for the country’s non-citizens? Is it worth to spend our tax-payers’ money on social services and integration efforts rather than channeling it for the use of our already cash-strapped countrymen? In the middle of the country’s worst public health and economic crises, should we still welcome refugees?

This might be a moral question, rather than an economic one. Yet, there have been studies which suggest that the cost of welcoming refugees can actually be more of an investment. Thus, “[w]hen a country invests in welcoming refugees, it not only does the right thing morally, i.e., helps the world’s most vulnerable people in their time of need, but also promotes economic growth and creates a more positive future for all its residents.” Some research also indicate that the refugee presence and ‘pursuit of livelihoods can increase human security because economic activities help to recreate social and economic interdependence within and between communities.’

Environmental implications. Over time, the prolonged presence of refugees might put a strain on the environment. Protracted refugee situations can aggravate environmental problems such as deforestation, erosion, illegal poaching, fishing, overgrazing, water pollution, food security, hygiene and sanitation, among others. Nonetheless, refugees can also bring positive environmental effects, such as attracting international aid and development actors who may undertake projects to protect the environment.

Social implications. Some sectors argue that the presence of refugees will damage social cohesion within refugee hosting communities. There might be a likelihood of adverse feelings of safety and trust in local communities where the refugees are integrated. This is dispelled by studies which reveal that “over time, refugees and host communities may build close social relations and sustain a peaceful and inclusive social environment.” Cultural enrichment necessarily follows too – think of the Vietnamese and their banh mi in Palawan.

There are indeed risks and implications of opening our country’s borders to refugees in general, and Afghan refugees, in particular. But are these risks and implications a necessary consequence of our membership in the community of nations? Yes.

The risks associated with welcoming refugees are part and parcel of the exercise of our sovereignty. By signing and ratifying international human rights treaties and instruments, we acted as a sovereign nation able to comply with its duties and obligations under these treaties. Thus, when we ratified the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, we have effectively “adopted the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land and adhered to the policy of . . . cooperation and amity with all nations.” To the world, we made a promise which we must keep in good faith.

The pronouncement made by Secretary Harry Roque is not an empty political statement bereft of meaning nor intention. The speed and timeliness by which it was announced indicates a rather quick, natural, decisive response to a very volatile situation. Our history of welcoming Jews, Russians, Vietnamese, Rohingyas, among other peoples, is a continuing political commitment to the world. Boldly, it may even be claimed that opening our doors to those who need our assistance goes beyond politics, but also reflects our deeply-entrenched cultural values of hospitality and empathy towards others. Our continued commitment in accepting refugees was once described by Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. as an obligation rooted in “malasakit,” a Filipino term which he defined to mean as “caring to the point of sharing the pain” and an “unbridled concern for the wellbeing of others”. Thus, it may be said that our response not only sustained historical precedents but also confirmed our values and cultural traits as a people.

In a pandemic-stricken world where death and hopelessness seem to peek in every crevice of our daily existence, a simple act of humanity is a “gleam of sunshine.” Aptly, Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner said, “It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime...” A single pronouncement from the Presidential Spokesperson pertaining to the country’s adherence to its obligations under international human rights law is enough to change a single day, perhaps even the course of a lifetime, of an Afghan refugee. And to the Filipino people, it is but a natural part of what makes us who we are as a nation.


Atty. Dashell C. Yancha-Po teaches Public International Law and Human Rights Law at the College of Law - San Sebastian College Recoletos de Manila and at Miriam College. She is also a Court Attorney at the Sandiganbayan.

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