UN official praises Philippines for willingness to take in refugees

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A man stands on a wooden boat which carried Rohingya and Bangladesh migrants at fishing port on May 13, 2015 in Lhokseumawe, Aceh province, Indonesia. Boats carrying over 500 of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. They have warned that thousands more are thought to be still at sea. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by the Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population.

(CNN Philippines) —  A representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) praised the Philippines for its willingness to take in foreign refugees, particularly some 300 Royinghans who had fled Myanmar last week.

Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR representative to the Philippines, met with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Tuesday (May 19) to discuss how the Philippines can share best practices with other countries affected by the influx of refugees.

A day before, De Lima said the Philippines has a process for providing protection to genuine asylum seekers, a point that Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. also stressed in a separate statement.

The two Cabinet officials made their statements in response to questions from media as to whether the government would be willing to take in a boat-load of about 300 Rohingyans who had fled Myanmar.

The Philippines, De Lima and Coloma said, is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

And, De Lima added, the country is also a signatory to the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

Coloma pointed out that the government sheltered thousands of so-called Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.

De Lima went back farther in time, saying: "As early as the Second World War, it provided asylum to 1,500 Jewish refugees who had been denied asylum in other countries."

As documented by some historians and journalists, that episode had the blessings of then President Manuel L. Quezon and American High Commissioner Paul McNutt.

"The Philippines is willing to share with other Southeast Asian countries its experience in the management of asylum seekers," De Lima said.

'Maritime ping-pong'

The question of whether the Philippines would be willing to take in the refugees cropped up over the weekend after the governments of Malaysia and Thailand had the refugee boat escorted out of their waters last week.

The Thai government, according to a Reuters report, did supply the starving refugees with food and water and even gave them some fuel for their boat. And then the Thai Navy escorted the boat out of their territory toward Indonesia.

According to a Reuters report by Aubrey Belford, the boat was pushed back and forth between Malaysian and Thai waters last week.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) described the situation as "maritime ping-pong."

On Tuesday (May 19), it would seem that the unwilling ball in the game was lost. Or at least nobody has sighted it again.

Last sighting

The overcrowded wooden boat was last seen late on Saturday (May 16), the Reuters report said.

That was when the Thai Navy towed it away from Thailand and toward Indonesia, Reuters quoted Thai Navy Lt. Cmdr. Veerapong Nakprasit as saying.

"There is absolutely no information because they are out of the radar's radius," Veerapong told Reuters. "The last known location was on May 16 at 9.30 p.m. (1430 GMT | 2 a.m. Sunday PHT)."

Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project tracks the movement of Rohingya boats, also said there has been no word from the boat since Saturday.

"We don't have any news," she said. "It's unbearable not knowing what has happened to people on board."

The boat was first discovered foundering off the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe on Thursday (May 14), several days after Rohingya activists announced it was missing.

'Death sentence'

Local governments had shown little concern for the fate of those on the boat, Amy Smith, an executive director of Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based watchdog group, told Reuters.

"They think that as soon as they get someone out of their territory it's no longer their responsibility," Smith said.

"It's scary... Pushing boats back is really a death sentence for people."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been among the critics of the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian policy of not taking in the boats.

Many migrants are believed to have been at sea for months, often surviving in desperate conditions.