Benchmarking or Scraping Bottom?
Recently, Mr. Raymond Hall, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) praised the Philippines for setting the “protection benchmark in Asia” for refugees. This after the Philippines has committed itself as a transit point for at-risk refugees while en route to resettlement in a third country, in an agreement with the UNCHR and the International Organization for Migration
Mr. Hall’s statement ignores the fact that the record of the current Philippine government in terms of protecting its own internal refugees is blotchy.
The term benchmarking refers to setting a standard or a best practice by which something can be measured. Indeed, what standard in terms of law and practice in refugee protection, has the Philippine government set in Asia and the rest of world for that matter?
Refugee protection as contained in the international law provides for freedom of refugees to move freely, to access basic public health care, freedom from forcible recruitment into armed groups, freedom from restrictions to work or earn a livelihood, among others.
A look at the reports on situation of internal refugees shows that the Philippines is scraping bottom instead of setting a benchmark.
A United Nation’s report cited the Philippines as second to Sudan in terms of the number of internally displaced refugees with 600,000 people displaced due to fresh fighting that broke out after the peace talks between the government and the Muslims rebels failed. Despite such staggering number, little attention has been paid to them by the Manila government.
The situation of the internal refugees has been appalling. Most of them live in crowded makeshift tents with limited access to food, water and livelihood. Many are afraid to go back to their homes and farms as human rights abuses are committed against the villagers. Deaths have been reported due preventable diseases in evacuation camps. Children have ceased schooling. Worse, there have been attempts by the military to block food rations to reach the refugees. One military officer rationalizes this by saying that the refugees are “reserved forces of the enemy”. While international relief organizations and the Department of Social Welfare provided for relief materials, these have been inadequate and cannot be sustained. Despite the ceasefire declared on July 29 2009, many of the refugees are still unable to return to their home.
Of late ,some 1,700 indigenous people internally displaced by fighting in Surigao Sur, have been targeted by military harassments and have been forced to join para-military groups. This is widely feared to only escalate armed conflict in the area.
So what protection benchmark has the Philippine set in Asia?
As a country where internal wars are waged, what best practices the Philippines has got to offer in protecting its own refugees?
It appears that the UNCHR official conveniently forgets that in a human rights review called by the United Nations Human Rights Council in April 2009, the Philippine delegation was questioned by its failure to address the unresolved extrajudicial killings and disappearances and the equally important issues such as the protection of migrant workers and the trafficking of women and children.
The Philippine constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. While the government cooperates with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, both foreign and internal, it is in the latter which its performance is found extremely lacking.
The country is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. But much remains to be done to put this commitment into reality. It needs to come up with a comprehensive law that provides for granting refugee status or asylum. More importantly, it must first show its commitment to the protection of its own refugees, before it assumes international responsibility for protection of foreign refugees. Failure to do so smacks of making international posturing, for posturing sake.
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