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Philippines latest Asian nation to stand in for Australia on refugees

Deal would see Philippines take in refugees from offshore detention camp

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Philippines latest Asian nation to stand in for Australia on refugees

Rohingya people pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters in May. The Philippines is negotiating a deal that could see it take in 1,000 refugees from Australia's controversial offshore detention center in Papua New Guinea. (Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP)

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Asia's most Catholic country, the Philippines, is poised to burnish its reputation as the most refugee-friendly nation in Asia, as it prepares to ink a deal with Australia to take in as many as 1,000 refugees from the controversial Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea.

The camp, along with another on the impoverished Pacific Island nation of Nauru, has become a political burden for Australia's coalition government. Both facilities are part of an offshore detention program that sees Australia hand over huge sums of money to needy countries, effectively outsourcing its obligations under international law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The camps are notorious for poor living conditions and rife with accusations of violence — including rape, child abuse and one murder.

Under the prospective deal with the Philippines, Australia — always happy to reach for its checkbook to keep desperate people from crossing its land borders — will pay about AU$150 million (US$109 million) over five years, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

The two nations are already involved in discussions about a wider strategic partnership agreement, which will cover both people movement issues as well as trade and defense. Australia appears to be using the lure of the agreement as leverage, people familiar with the talks have told ucanews.com.

Australia and the Philippines are core members of the emerging Pacific alliance around the United States, which also includes Japan and South Korea as well as Thailand, the strongest U.S. ally on the Southeast Asian mainland.

The pending refugee deal has the backing of key cabinet ministers in the Philippine government, including the secretaries of justice, defense and foreign affairs.

Ucanews.com has learned that Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario gave his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, verbal assurance that the deal would go ahead, when they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Oct. 2.

Bishop has confirmed that talks on people movement issues took place at the meeting.

The deal is now awaiting approval from President Benigno Aquino, who has previously expressed some reservations.

On Sept. 8 he said that although the Philippines is open to taking in refugees, the resources of the country need to be considered.

"The culture is there, but we want to make sure that we manage it properly, that we don't take more than we can handle," Aquino said during a public forum, according to Philippine media. "A vast majority of our people are still living in poverty. We would like to take our resources to better our people."

 

Outsourcing

Australia has a track record of using its wealth to outsource its refugee obligations to poorer nations.

In 2014, the country inked a controversial deal with Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations, to take in refugees from the Nauru detention center. Cambodia has such a deficit of work for its own citizens that at least 500,000 people leave to find jobs — often illegally — in neighboring Thailand in order to send money back to their families.

So far only four people — one ethnic Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar and three Iranians — have taken up the offer. But the Rohingya man has already made arrangements with his home country to return.

It's a problem that the Philippines also has with several million of its citizen working across Asia and the Middle East in low-paying jobs as domestic helpers, hospitality industry workers or manual laborers.

But the Philippines also has the best track record in Southeast Asia for its acceptance and integration of refugees, having done so after the war in Vietnam, a nation with a large Catholic population.

Still, despite senior cabinet backing in the Philippines, there are a range of doubts about the pending agreement.

Firstly, there is an understandable worry that the deal will put the Philippines squarely on the map for people smugglers in the region. Options for traffickers have dried up with the clampdown by authorities in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia following the May refugee boat crisis, which saw thousands of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants and asylum seekers stranded at sea.

There is also a belief in some quarters that many of the refugees will not be satisfied with the Philippines, having set out — and paid their money — to get to first-world Australia. They may try again, leading to problems with Australia. The Philippines looks at the stress that people movement issues placed on the Australia-Indonesia relationship and does not want to end up in a similar situation.

The final concern is ethical. Many refugee lawyers believe that Australia is illegally dodging its obligations under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and that by assisting Australia in the continuing outsourcing of its obligations, the Philippines becomes complicit.

Unlike Australia's grubby deal with Cambodia, the money from which was always largely headed to the pockets of Prime Minister-cum-dictator Hun Sen and his cronies, the Philippines appears to be undertaking to carry Australia's load from a more moral point of view. Where that leaves Australia is fairly, and sadly, clear.

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