MANILA, May 21, 2015—In what seems to be a trip down memory lane, the head of the local Church’s policy-making body has recalled the “glorious” efforts of the Filipinos at sheltering the so-called boat people of the 1970s and 1980s now that the nation prepares to take in yet another batch of foreign refugees—this time from Myanmar—when all others refuse them welcome.
“Our country then served as some kind of a way-station, because our Vietnamese guests soon found their way to other parts of the globe. One of them, in fact, rose through the ranks of ecclesiastical academe to become dean of theology at one of Rome’s Pontifical Universities. It was a glorious chapter in our history, and we thank God that many of our priests and religious received the privilege of serving them,” notes Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in a recent circular.
The prelate bemoans that once more, a new generation of boat people is making its way to Philippine shores, having endured appalling conditions aboard their vessels.
These refugees are some 3,000 Rohingya Muslims who had recently escaped persecution from the mostly Buddhist Myanmar, hoping to seek asylum elsewhere.
“Doubtlessly, many lost their lives in the attempt to find some haven. They navigate into our waters tired, famished, desperate — many of them carrying the dead bodies of their children in their arms,” he adds.
The prelate expresses lament that other Southeast Asian countries have turned the refugees away, denying them at least temporary stay.
“Ironically, the countries that turn refugees away vie with each other for tourists and investors! In many instances, coast guard and naval patrol vessels tow these boats, brimming over with their load of our hungry, sick and desperate brothers and sisters back to the high seas, there to face the elements, and often, sadly, to perish!” he says.
Even as he urges all in the name of common humanity to help the refugees, Villegas lauds the Philippine government for its attitude of hospitality towards the Rohingyas.
“While it may be true that there is no legal obligation on the part of the Republic of the Philippines or that of any other country to grant asylum to every refugee or displaced person, there is a moral obligation to protect them from the harm they flee from. There is a legal obligation not to forcibly repatriate them. And by all precepts of morality and decency, there is an obligation not to leave them to the mercilessness of the elements on the high seas,” he explains.
While admitting the country’s economic resources may not allow it to welcome every migrant as permanent resident, Villegas stresses there is always room for the weary and burdened to rest on Philippine shores before the refugees continue on their journey.
‘Chance to bind wounds’
“Once, our land was resplendent not only because of tourist spots and destinations, but because we welcomed refugees with the hospitality that has made us famous the world over. God gives us this chance once more to bind the wounds of body and spirit, warm the hearts and embrace in solidarity our brothers and sisters who come to us from troubled lands,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesman Herminio Coloma, reportedly told the British Telegraph as saying that as the only predominantly Catholic nation in Southeast Asia, Filipinos have a duty to provide help to those in need. (Raymond A. Sebastián/CBCP News)