The Foreign Service Institute hosted a lecture entitled “The Philippine Refugee Policy” as part of its Mabini Dialogue Series on 8 June 2017 at the Benedicto Room, Carlos P. Romulo Library, DFA. Atty. Melvin C. Suarez, State Counsel from the Refugees and Stateless Persons Protection Unit (RSPPU), Department of Justice was the guest speaker. Dr. Beyan Atta Mohamed Hagos, a faculty member from the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School and an Eritrean national with a refugee status in the Philippines, served as the discussant.
Atty. Suarez presented figures which show that as of December 2016, the Philippines hosted 395 refugees and 244 asylum-seekers from Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. Atty. Suarez also provided a historical timeline of refugees in the Philippines, which came in nine (9) waves. The most popular arrivals were those of the White Russians in 1923 and 1947, the Jewish refugees from Europe during the Nazi Germany era, and the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
He also discussed the legal definitions of refugees and stateless persons as defined in the 1951 and 1954 UN Conventions, respectively, which the Philippines is a party to. He then discussed the legal mandate and functions of the RSPPU, which is to identify, determine and protect refugees and stateless persons, and coordinate with other relevant government agencies in formulating durable solutions for these cases. Atty. Suarez wrapped up his presentation with a discussion of the challenges and prospects for refugees in the Philippines, such as the absence of permanent budget for the RSSPU operations, low awareness of refugee issues among government agencies, the downsizing of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Philippines, and the conflation of refugee seekers issues with security issues.
Dr. Hagos shared his insights and experiences as a refugee in the Philippines. He narrated the current state of events in his home country, Eritrea, which is found in the Horn of Africa. The autocratic leadership of President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since since Eritrea’s independence in 1993, has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans seeking refuge in neighboring countries Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as in Europe. Moreover, the highest number of boats that capsized in the Mediterranean carried Eritrean refugee-seekers. Hailing from the Eritrean capital of Asmara, Dr. Hagos related his amusement at how Filipinos taught him the value of listening to different points of view without engaging in violent conflict.
During the open forum, it was emphasized that refugee issues remain underappreciated in the Philippines. But the establishment of the Interagency Steering Committee among key government offices can substantially help provide material assistance and social services to asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless persons in the country. Moreover, the conflation of the issues on refugees with security concerns must be taken seriously, with the help of intelligence agencies such as the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), and the Bureau of Immigration (BI), among others.