Philippines, Indonesia offer hope for refugees

Philippines, Indonesia offer hope for refugees

Hopes of some respite for thousands of illegal migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were raised yesterday.

The Philippines said it was ready to accept them, while Indonesia hinted at the same if international aid was forthcoming.

Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told reporters in Manila that she had met the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative, Mr Bernard Kerblat, to discuss her country's offer, described as a "hopeful sign" by the International Organisation for Migration.

"Basically, what we're doing with the various governments in the region is to look at ways and means to put together ideas, and the basic message here is: What can be done collectively to try to save lives," said Mr Kerblat.

Ms de Lima said there was already "a process in place" to admit the refugees and migrants who will make it to the Philippines, which is a signatory to UN refugee conventions.

"We intend to honour our commitment to these international conventions. We have the... obligation to extend humanitarian assistance to these asylum seekers," said Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Charles Jose.

But Philippine officials did not elaborate on the offer to accept the migrants, beyond citing the precedent of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.

Mr Jose said the Philippines "demonstrated (its) capacity and commitment" when it welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Vietnam.

From the 1970s to the early 1990s, about 400,000 Vietnamese went through Philippine refugee camps before being resettled in other countries, including the United States, Australia, Germany and Britain.

Indonesia yesterday also noted that it had similarly helped Vietnamese boat people.

"Don't forget that Indonesia was one of the few countries that put up refugee shelters for boat people fleeing from Vietnam years ago. They were placed in Pulau Galang, but on the condition that we had international assistance," Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla was quoted as saying by Antara news agency.

On the current wave of migrants, he said Indonesia would help those stranded on its shores.

"But if there is no international assistance or countries committed to accepting them, then it is a problem (sheltering them for the longer term on the island)."

His comments came ahead of a trilateral meeting between Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia on the crisis today.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who noted that Jakarta had already gone the "extra mile", said she wanted to discuss tackling the root of the migrant problem and human trafficking.

"With Myanmar, Indonesia has always carried out constructive engagement. We will address the issue. We will send the message via constructive engagement."

She was speaking in response to a question on whether she planned to ask the other countries to pressure Myanmar to take responsibility for the Rohingyas, who make up the bulk of illegal migrants arriving on rickety boats.

Nearly 3,000 people have been rescued over the past week off Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, but many others have been turned away and fears are growing over the fate of thousands of others believed to be drifting without food or water.

Rohingya Muslims are regarded as illegal "Bengali" immigrants and often face discrimination, if not persecution, in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

In recent years, poverty has driven an increasing number of Bangladeshis to join the Rohingya exodus across the Bay of Bengal.

This article was first published on May 20, 2015.
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