Manila (AsiaNews/CBCP) – “While it may be true that there is no legal obligation on the part of the Republic of the Philippines or that of any other country to grant asylum to every refugee or displaced person, there is a moral obligation to protect them from the harm they flee from,” said Mgr Socrates B. Villegas, archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan.
In a circular to the country’s Catholics, the prelate, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), explained that “There is a legal obligation not to forcibly repatriate them. And by all precepts of morality and decency, there is an obligation not to leave them to the mercilessness of the elements on the high seas.”
In what seems to be a trip down memory lane, the head of the Filipino Church mentioned the boat people of the 1970s and 1980s now that the nation prepares to take in yet another batch of foreign refugees. “Once, our land was resplendent not only because of tourist spots and destinations, but because we welcomed refugees with the hospitality that has made us famous the world over,” Villegas said.
“Our country then served as some kind of a way-station, because our Vietnamese guests soon found their way to other parts of the globe. One of them, in fact, rose through the ranks of ecclesiastical academe to become dean of theology at one of Rome’s Pontifical Universities,” he added.
This “was a glorious chapter in our history, and we thank God that many of our priests and religious received the privilege of serving them”. Sadly though, a new generation of boat people (about 3,000 Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh refugees) are seeking asylum on Filipino shores.
"Doubtlessly, many lost their lives in the attempt to find some haven. They navigate into our waters tired, famished, desperate — many of them carrying the dead bodies of their children in their arms,” the prelate wrote in the letter. “God gives us this chance once more to bind the wounds of body and spirit, warm the hearts and embrace in solidarity our brothers and sisters who come to us from troubled lands”.
According to the archbishop, the attitude of the countries of Southeast Asia that refused asylum to refugees is deplorable. "In many instances,” he bemoaned, “coast guard and naval patrol vessels tow these boats, brimming over with their load of our hungry, sick and desperate brothers and sisters back to the high seas, there to face the elements, and often, sadly, to perish!
Conversely, the cardinal praised the attitude of the Filipino government, which has indicated its the willingness to host the refugees. While admitting the country’s economic resources may not allow it to welcome every migrant as permanent resident, Villegas stressed there is always room for the weary and downtrodden to rest on Filipino shores before they continue on their journey.