DURING his May 24 Regina Caeli address at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis has strongly called on the international community to help several boat loads of refugees that are reportedly still stranded after attempting to sail across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
“I continue following with great concern the events of the many refugees in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. I express my appreciation for the efforts made by those countries that have expressed willingness to welcome these people who are facing great suffering and danger. I encourage the international community to provide them with the necessary humanitarian assistance,” exhorted the Pontiff.
According to reports, these “boat people” who are still being tossed at sea were transported by human traffickers and later abandoned amid crackdowns by Thailand government. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that some 2,000 people are presently stranded in the Bay of Bengal and another 1,500 in the Andaman Sea. Indonesia and Malaysia have committed to take some of these asylum seekers that are mostly Rohingya Muslims escaping persecution in Burma. But other Asian countries are still adamant to allow them to land on their shores, for one reason or the other.
The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Socrates Villegas lauded the Philippine government for opening its shores to our Asian brothers who have suffered enough in their homeland and continue to suffer at sea for several weeks now. Villegas refers to them as the “Anawim of the Lord today”. They are “refugees in flimsy boats, making their way to our shores, having endured appalling conditions aboard these vessels… many of them lost their lives in the attempt to find some haven. They navigate to our waters tired, famished, desperate—many of them carrying the dead bodies of their children in their arms.”
Says Villegas, “While it is maybe true that there is no legal obligation on the part of the Republic of the Philippines or that any other 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. 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.” For sure the Filipino will always welcome refugees. It is part of the Filipino culture that gladly transcends even legal requisites that other Asian countries find so hard to surpass.
The Philippine has a happy track record of being hospitable to refugees. From the 70s until the 90s this country has hosted hundreds of thousand refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It may be good to know that the CBCP has already issued four pastoral statements in pursuit of the cause of “boat people”, namely: “Because I was a stranger and you made me welcome” in 1975; “I was a stranger….” in 1979; “Statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on refugees” in 1980; and “Refugees—the ‘Anawim’ of the Lord today” in 2015.