After being turned away by Indonesia and Malaysia, fighting broke out on board over food and water, claiming lives.
Manila, The Philippines – The Philippine government has said it is willing to open the country’s doors to minority Rohingya migrants who have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh, saying that it is committed to the United Nations pledge to protect asylum seekers and refugees.
“Let us not fall short of providing humanitarian relief and assistance that is asked of us, as we pride ourselves to be a compassionate and hospitable people,” Senator Paolo Aquino said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
“We call on the proper international agencies to process the legal issues immediately for the welfare of the boat people,” said Aquino, a cousin and political ally of President Benigno Aquino.
The statement came after Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said on Monday that the country has an obligation to admit and protect asylum seekers, even when the refugees do not have documents to prove their status.
“If there are boat people who come to us seeking the protection of our government, there is a process, there are existing mechanisms on how to handle these refugees or asylum seekers,” de Lima said in a statement.
The Philippine justice secretary’s remarks came after a spokesman of the president was earlier quoted as saying that the refugees could be turned away because they do not have the necessary documents.
The statements were issued as other Southeast Asian nations continued to reject taking in more migrants stranded on boats off Southeast Asia’s shores, despite growing international pressure.
Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia have been in high-level talks in an attempt to solve the refugee crisis after boats holding more than 2,000 migrants, including many Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis, landed in their countries in recent weeks.
UN agencies urged the three regional powers on Tuesday to step up their sea rescue operations and let desperate migrants reach land.
In a joint statement, joined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the agencies called on the three countries to stop trying to push boats away from their territorial waters.
Authorities should “provide for effective, predictable disembarkation to a place of safety with adequate and humane reception conditions” and establish screening procedures to identify those in need of international protection as refugees, the statement added.
The Philippines has a long history of hosting refugees from other Asian countries, and as far as Europe.
During World War II, then Philippine President Manuel Quezon ordered the admission of 1,500 Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust in Europe.
Following the war and the communist victory in the civil war in China, thousands of Chinese refugees also settled in the Philippines.
In the 1970s, as Vietnam was engaged in a civil war, the Philippines also provided sanctuary to Vietnamese “boat people” building a Vietnamese village in the western island of Palawan. Most of the refugees were eventually resettled in other countries, many of them in the US.
With reporting by Ted Regencia from Manila.