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Philippines Says It's Ready to Shelter 3,000 Rohingya Refugees

(Photo: Reuters)

By John Burger
May 20, 2015

Malaysia and Indonesia also announce change in policy

Even before Wednesday's announcement that Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to provide temporary shelter to thousands of migrants stranded at sea, the Philippines said it is ready to welcome about 3,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The refugees, who have been adrift in the Bay of Bengal, have until now been rejected by Southeast Asian countries.

The Philippines Minister for Communications, Herminio Coloma, said that his nation "will continue to do our part to save lives."

Coloma said the Philippines is a signatory of the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees, pledging to "provide assistance and relief to people involuntarily displaced from their lands due to conflict." In the 1970s, the nation welcomed the Vietnamese "boat people" who fled their country after the Vietnam War.

Father Socrates Mesiona, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the Philippines, appreciates the government's position.

"It is our duty to welcome these people: if necessary, we will welcome them and will try to ensure them a decent life," he said, quoted by Fides News Agency. "They are human beings and children of God, created in the image and likeness of God. The fact that they are Muslim does not create any problem and does not change the state of things. As the Gospel teaches us, we are ready to give them hospitality."

Southeast Asian countries have been under pressure to resolve the crisis. The thousands of migrants, many of whom have been adrift at sea, belong to the Rohingya Muslim minority. Many have fled from Burma, where they are not granted citizenship. It is believed that most of the migrants are victims of human traffickers who recruit them in Myanmar and Bangladesh with the promise to give them a job in Malaysia or in other countries of the area. The UN agency for refugees estimates that more than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have left Myanmar via sea in the past three years. 

Their plight has gotten the attention of Pope Francis, who in a homily Tuesday compared them to the people victimized in the Islamic State group's jihad in Syria and Iraq.

"We think of the poor Rohingya of Myanmar. As they leave their land to escape persecution they do not know what will happen to them," Pope Francis said.

Indonesia and Malaysia said Wednesday that they "agreed to provide them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," according to the New York Times.

Thailand will contribute humanitarian aid, without hosting refugees on its soil, since already tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar are present in the nation.

Jesuit Father Lawrence Andrew, director of the diocesan weekly of Kuala Lumpur, the Herald, welcomed the news of the breakthrough: ​"It is a matter of compassion. It is a question of saving lives, men, women and children," he said. "These migrants are human beings and have the right to life, have a dignity. Last Sunday we prayed for them in Malaysian churches."

Meanwhile a flotilla of Indonesian fishermen rescued more than 430 Rohingya migrants Wednesday, bringing them safely on the shores of the island of Sumatra.

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