Philippines says prepared to help boatpeople

Philippines says prepared to help boatpeople
Migrants are seen aboard a boat

MANILA - The Philippines said Tuesday it was ready to help Rohingya and Bangladeshi boatpeople, as its Southeast Asian neighbours faced outrage for turning them away.

The Philippines is obliged to help the migrants, many of whom are fleeing persecution, because it is party to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, foreign affairs department spokesman Charles Jose said.

"We have the commitment and the obligation to extend humanitarian assistance to these asylum seekers," Jose told ANC television.

Jose and other senior government officials would not elaborate on the kind of help the Philippines would give to the Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis, whose plight has been described as a humanitarian catastrophe.

"We can't go into much detail yet. We are not yet into that point. What we are saying now is our broad policy statement regarding this issue," he said.

Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand over the past week, with thousands more believed to be drifting on boats without food or water.

The three governments have sparked international outrage for driving away some of the migrant boats, who are believed to have been deserted by human trafficking rings after a Thai crackdown.

Describing a precedent to the current situation, Jose pointed to the example of the Philippines accepting Vietnamese refugees at the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

In that case, the Philippines accepted boatpeople who arrived directly on its shores but also others who had originally landed in other countries.

About 400,000 Vietnamese refugees went through Philippine camps and were eventually relocated to other countries, according to a government website.

President Benigno Aquino's spokesman also said the Philippines was open to helping the refugees, as he cited the values of mercy and compassion found in the nation's dominant Catholic religion.

"As the only predominantly Catholic nation in Southeast Asia, it is our duty to provide succour to those in need," presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma told AFP.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where they have no legal rights, making them a target for human traffickers. Up to 1.3 million live in the western Rakhine state.

Malaysia and Thailand have called on Myanmar to stem the flow of the Rohingya but Myanmar has refused to take responsiblity, claiming the group is composed of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

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