Thursday, September 29, 2005

`The Philippine’s undiscriminating embrace’

`Everyone has the right to a nationality.’’ Article 15, UN Declaration of Human Rights

``They hope to tell the world about the boundless love that returned to the remaining boat people their inalienable human dignity. That boundless love is none other than the Philippines’ undiscriminating embrace.’’ That moving statement is in a document written on behalf of the Vietnamese boat people who had opted for permanent settlement in the Philippines.

I shed Filipino tears when that was read at the inauguration of Vietville in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan in 1998.

For so long, they were without a country. There was no room for them in the inn. It was the Philippines that made their long wait bearable. It was, in fact, the Philippines that gave many Vietnamese boat people a permanent home when no country out there wanted them.

``16-year stopover finally over,’’ the Inquirer said two days ago of the Vietnamese boat people who had made the Philippines their temporary home. Finally, they were winging their way to the US that had for so long denied them entry. They were just the first batch of 229 from a group of 1,600 stateless individuals who were swept away here. The rest will be flying too in the weeks to come.

But many will be staying behind—either by choice or by force of circumstances. Many have settled in Vietville in Palawan.

It had been a long complicated story. Remember the messy forcible repatriation in 1996. That happened after the so-called ``receiving world’’ wanted to see the end of the exodus of boat people from the Vietnam. The Philippines, home to the United Nations-run processing camps for about two decades, was left with stateless people in its hands. The Philippines had done its part to provide hospitality and services.

In 1996 the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) set up restrictive policies to drive the asylum seekers home. A rigid and prohibitive regimen was imposed on the Philippine First Asylum Camp (PFAC). Self-help projects, education and skills training set up by church NGOs inside PFAC were abolished. Voluntary repatriation was the UNHCR’s offered option. This resulted in hunger strikes and suicide attempts in the Bataan and Palawan refugee camps.

The Catholic Church hierarchy thought of a more humane solution. A memorandum of agreement with the government gave the remaining boat people (RBP) options better than repatriation to Vietnam. But the RBP had to move out of the camps to an open site under the church’s jurisdiction. This arrangement allowed many to continue studying and earning a living like legal residents. They could also opt for repatriation or wait for visas peacefully.

In July 1996, the so-called chapter of the Indochinese phenomenon in the Philippines came to an end. More than 700 persons chose to be repatriated to Vietnam while 1,589 registered for residence. Some 350 applied for temporary residence while waiting to be reunited with their kin abroad. The rest opted for permanent settlement. They are the ``Vietnoys’’ in Vietville.

And so began the efforts to set up a village. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ Episcopal Commission for Migrants and Itinerant People raised $1.3 million from concerned individuals (many of them Vietnamese boat people who had made good abroad) and from funding institutions.

At that time there were the so-called ``ODPs’’ who had come under the ``orderly departure program’’ but who remained in limbo. These were the ones who departed from communist-ruled Vietnam through the auspices of the US government. They were not boat people. They were brought here by the US military for processing and had been promised residence in the US or a third country. They did not think they should be repatriated. They were the hold-outs in the Puerto Princesa camps.

Those who came after 1989 via the South China Sea or any route were no longer going to be considered asylum seekers but economic migrants and would need to go through the regular immigration process. Worse, they could be suspected as criminal fugitives.

Such was the dilemma of the Vietnamese here. During the intensive repatriation drive, some Filipinos took pity on them and took them in.

Well, now the time for many of them to fly to the country of their dreams has come. Will the Philippines remain in their hearts?

In 1995, I did a feature story ``Citizens without A Country’’, for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. This was about Vietnamese-Filipino families who were in limbo. They were the so-called DPs or displaced families.

Le Thi Khanh came in 1975 with her Filipino partner German and their children. German worked in Saigon for seven years. The war between the US forces and Vietnamese communists forced many people to leave. What happened next was something straight out of a movie melodrama. Khanh and the children found themselves sharing a roof with German’s first wife and seven children. But there was no turning back. Vietnam was in flames.

German soon died and Khanh was left to fend for herself and her children whose status was always problematic. One grown son could not take the board exams.

I don’t know how the DP families whom I wrote about are doing now. They were, at that time, living in a low-cost housing project of the Archdiocese of Manila. I remember Khanh looking so aged at 53, showing me a photo of herself in Vietnam, looking so svelte in a low-cut dress.

She was pounding pandan leaves when I came, extracting its juice for the bansuse (like our suman). The smell was sweet, a reminder of the old Saigon she knew before love and war changed her life forever.