Aside from world-class singers, boxers, and performers, Filipinos have something else they can be proud of: a history of taking in refugees who fled from persecution in their countries.
On June 25, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in the Philippines Bernard Kerblat talked about the nine waves of refugees the Philippines took in from 1923 to 2000.
His presentation at the Old Senate Hall of the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila comes at the heels of the crisis at the Bay of Bengal, involving trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshi people seeking sanctuary last month.
Having worked in the Philippines for five years now, Kerblat was able to find stories of the country displaying its famed hospitality to foreigners.
Unfortunately, he discovered that everywhere “from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi,” very, very few Filipinos were aware of their ancestors’ “incredible, exceptional deeds (and) humanitarian gestures.”
It was time to highlight this research, and to get more historians to study it, he said. It should be taught to students, as well.
FIRST WAVE: White Russians in 1923
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, White Russians, or those opposed to the Socialist revolution, fled Vladivostock to escape the Red Army, which was the army created by the Communist government. They decided to sail to the Philippines to seek asylum.
This was the first recorded case of refugees landing in the country, Kerblat said. There were originally 12 ships of White Russians, but only 11 made it because of a typhoon that sank the twelfth. A total of 800 White Russians landed in Mariveles, and moved to Subic, where they disembarked. Some 250 men moved to Mindanao to cultivate abaca, Kerblat said.
The Philippines, he added, was the only country to welcome them at the time. In May of the same year, 536 were able to resettle in the United States, and the rest migrated to other countries. Some men settled in the Philippines and married local women.
SECOND WAVE: Jewish refugees from 1934 to 1940
About 1,200 European Jews migrated from Europe to the Philippines in their flight from persecution by the Nazis. Others followed from Shanghai, where they had moved earlier.
Kerblat said, “These people were certainly on their way to a programmed death from extermination.”
President Manuel Quezon authorized their admission in 1934. Kerblat told the audience of students and teachers of history that in 1940, “your ancestors did something exceptional.”
President Quezon signed into law the 1940 Philippine Immigration Act, which continues to be valid today.
The law says that the President has the prerogative to issue a humanitarian visa for people fleeing persecution, a notion that Filipinos adopted 11 years before the rest of the world did in the form of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The law says: “Notwithstanding the provisions of this Act the President is authorized: …(b) For humanitarian reasons, and when not opposed to the public interest, to admit aliens who are refugees for religious, political, or racial reasons, in such classes of cases and under such conditions as he may prescribe.”
In his 35 years working with refugees, Kerblat said that he had never encountered a country with “such a liberal, visionary set of texts to protect and save refugees.”
“Today we bow with respect and admiration for President Quezon,” he added.
During the Jewish refugees’ stay in the Philippines, the cigar industry experienced a boost as the Jews brought in some advanced techniques.
With topnotch obstetricians and cardiologists among them, it was unfortunate that the Philippines at the time did not allow non-Filipinos to practice medicine. But an exception was made for seven of them, who were eminent in their fields.
“Refugees are not a burden; they are also first and foremost contributors to the local economy,” Kerblat stressed.
Today, the Philippines is the only state celebrated by Israel to have saved Jewish lives. In 2009, a monument was erected near Tel-Aviv to commemorate the Philippines and honor Quezon’s humanitarian deeds, Kerblat said.
THIRD WAVE: Spanish Republicans in 1939
After the Spanish Civil War between the Republicans and the Nationalists from 1936 to 1939, 200 of the defeated Republicans sailed from Europe to the Philippines to seek refuge.
FOURTH WAVE: Chinese refugees in 1940
Following the Rape of Nanjing from December 1937 to January 1938, where Japanese troops massacred anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese citizens, refugees from China fled to Hong Kong. Next, they traveled to the Philippines with British and American citizens, as well as Hong Kong nationals who wanted to escape the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong.
In 1937, President Quezon issued Proclamation No. 173 to extend aid to refugees, especially Filipino and American nationals in China who fled the country in 1940.
A few thousands of Chinese who remained here throughout World War II, became naturalized Filipinos in 1946. The children of these new citizens born in the Philippines acquired Filipino citizenship from birth, as well, Kerblat said.
FIFTH WAVE: White Russians in 1947
Due to the end of the Civil War in China and the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the “White Russians” (composed of Russians, Ukrainians, Polish, Armenians, Turko Tatars, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Romanians, Czechs and Yugoslavs, Hungarians, Germans, and Austrians) had to leave China, where they had earlier sought asylum.
They then moved to Tubabao Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, through the help of the UNHCR’s predecessor, the International Refugee Organization, and the Philippine government, under the leadership of President Elpidio Quirino.
An estimated 6,000 of them came here. “We arrived in Tubabao camp. The air was clean, nature beautiful – palm trees, coconuts, bananas, an azure sea, just like in heaven,” wrote a certain “M.K.”, a refugee quoted by the UNHCR as saying.
At the time, the Republic of the Philippines was barely three years old. “It was confronted with a multitude of challenges: the first one was the reconstruction of the huge damage it (sustained) from the Second World War. The second challenge was the necessity to put together institutions, pass laws, set up procedures, and develop the administration as a fully fledged independent country.”
Kerblat gave his audience a quiz. “Which other country that was barely three years old decided to answer, raise their hands, and say, ‘Refugees, we care. Halika na. Come over.’?”
The refugees were also given certificates of identity, thus making them “under the legal protection of the Republic of the Philippines.”
Kerblat added, “For the first time in their lives, they existed.”
In 1954, Typhoon Ami battered the camp, which they rebuilt afterwards. It was only natural that when Supertyphoon Yolanda struck some 70 years later, UN agencies and NGOs returned to Guiuan to give back to the community.
The refugees eventually resettled to Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Suriname, Uruguay, US, France, and Belgium.
SIXTH WAVE: Vietnamese refugees in 1975 to 1992
Following the end of the Vietnam War and the reunification of the north and south in 1975, some Vietnamese who did not see themselves as part of the new regime, as well as those who feared retribution for their association with the former south Vietnamese government, went to the Philippines.
Kerblat himself worked on assisting the refugees in Palawan for three months. The camp was near the runway of the airport, which served only two flights per day. So at home were the Vietnamese that the UNHCR had to pay someone to roam around and tell refugees who had set up volleyball nets on the runway that a plane would be landing in 20 minutes, and the net had to be dismantled.
Kerblat added that UNHCR protection officers in other countries usually had a difficult job, dealing with the likes of rape, torture, and disappearances.
In the Philippines at the time, there was only one UNHCR protection officer. His only job was to go from hut to hut and tell the people there that they had been accepted for resettlement in another country.
In the aftermath of Yolanda, Kerblat said, many Vietnamese ex-refugees gave donations to the country to help reconstruct affected areas as a thank-you to the communities’ earlier gesture of hospitality to them.
SEVENTH WAVE: Iranian refugees in 1979
Before the Iranian Revolution, there were already some 14,000 Iranians in the Philippines studying English, dentistry, and medicine. When a change of regime took place in their home country, they did not see themselves as part of this, which was why they asked if the Philippine government would grant them permission to stay in the country.
They were allowed to be here “sur place,” which was jargon, as Kerblat explained, designating people outside their country of origin as qualified for refugee status when there is a change of regime in their home countries.
EIGHTH WAVE: Indo-Chinese refugees from 1980 to 1994
A flood of refugees entered various Southeast Asian countries following a change in regime in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Five years into the crisis in 1980, the countries of first asylum were getting impatient, with Thailand for instance, hosting one million refugees in 26 camps.
This was why the UNHCR called for a conference gathering countries of origin, asylum, and resettlement, where it was decided that there would be two regional refugee processing centers—one in Indonesia, and the other in the Philippines, in Bataan in particular. Refugees arrived here on their way to resettlement in other countries.
NINTH WAVE: East Timorese in 2000
As the East Timorese struggled for independence from Indonesia, 640 priests, nuns, students, and pro-independence activists went to the Philippines to escape from the peak of violence from April to September 1999.
The Philippines offered them “temporary protection,” Kerblat said. They were able to return to Dili after security was restored.
(source: Tricia Aquino, Interaksyon; Photos courtesy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees)