Sara Duterte opposes plan for PH to host Afghan refugees
Vice President Sara Duterte has opposed a US request to bring in 50,000 Afghans fleeing their Taliban-led country to the Philippines prior to their relocation to the United States, citing possible security threats and violations of the country’s sovereignty.
Duterte, who is also the education secretary, stated her position in an April 20 letter to the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), Education Undersecretary Michael Wesley Poa told senators on Friday at the opening of an inquiry into the controversial plan.
The US request was disclosed last week by Sen. Imee Marcos, chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations who filed a resolution calling for the inquiry.
Duterte had raised “vehement objection and opposition to the proposal in its entirety,” Poa said.
He said she was concerned about the possibility that students would be caught in a crossfire should local terrorists supporting the Taliban launch attacks against the Afghans brought into the country.
“We feel that this might have the risk of further exacerbating an already unstable situation as regards the local terrorist groups in some areas in the country,” Poa said.
He said the ATC asked Duterte as education secretary to comment on the US request.
Aside from the security threats, Poa said the Vice President cited sovereignty issues in allowing the United States to vet Afghans who would be flying in from Kabul.
He said the Philippines had the right to determine who could enter the country and who could stay, whether temporarily or permanently.
“In the proposal, it seems that the vetting process will be done by the (United States). Therefore, this is an interference into our exclusive determination as to who can enter our country,” Poa said.
Senator Marcos, President Marcos’ eldest sibling, presided over the hearing where she took to task some members of her brother’s administration for allegedly keeping the discussion on the plan for the Afghans under wraps.
She was specifically referring to the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), which called representatives of various state agencies to a meeting on this matter on June 7.
No representative of the PMS attended Friday’s hearing.
Marcos questioned the propriety of accommodating individuals fleeing Afghanistan while thousands of Filipinos displaced by the 2017 siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-linked terrorists were still waiting for permanent shelters.
“By the rubric of simple reasonableness, this appears to be outlandish given the bending of rules required (and) the imposition on our already overburdened resources,” she said.
“Does this seem reasonable?” she asked Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo.‘Nothing final’
Manalo dismissed Marcos’ suspicions that the plan was being kept from the public and lawmakers.
He said that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had sought the opinions of various security agencies, including the ATC, the National Security Council, the Philippine National Police, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
He said the ATC later recommended a Cabinet-level discussion of the US proposal. “So, nothing was final … because we were still trying to collate all the views (of the government agencies),” Manalo said.
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. said he had asked the Department of Justice for a legal opinion to address the immigration issues and other legal aspects of bringing in foreigners without the mandated travel documents.
He shared Marcos’ concerns about the lack of capabilities of Philippine law enforcement authorities to conduct their own security check and vetting of the Afghans who would be entering the country.
In a position paper submitted to her committee, the National Bureau of Investigation raised the possibility that “sleeper cells” of terror groups and Taliban sympathizers in the country would target the Afghans.
“They (Talibans) may have sympathizers from the southern Philippines (among) our Muslim brothers. That’s a possibility,” said NBI Deputy Director Jose Justo Yap.
Ricardo de Leon, the director general of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, said the presence in the country of Afghans supporting the Americans may be used as “propaganda” by terrorists to carry out attacks.
“We also express the same anxiety because some terrorists (will be) given the opportunity to travel and that is a problem of records checking. It will pose some security concerns later on,” De Leon said.
Manalo said the government has yet to accede to Washington’s request, which was first brought to his attention by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken informally last year.
Manalo said the US government formalized its proposal in October 2022 through a “concept note” sent to Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez.
Romualdez, who participated in Friday’s hearing online from Washington, said he immediately informed Manalo of the request and submitted the concept note to the DFA.
Discussed with Biden
The foreign secretary disclosed that US President Joe Biden discussed the matter with the President during the latter’s visit to Washington in May.
Manalo said the Afghans would only be staying briefly in the country while they await the approval of their special immigration visas before flying to the United States.
According to Romualdez, the Afghans were not seeking political asylum in the Philippines. They are former and present workers employed by the United States in Afghanistan and their families, he said.
He said the US government had told him that they would be housed in the country for two weeks at the most and that the cost of their stay would be paid for by the Americans.
He earlier said in an interview with CNN Philippines that they were “Afghan citizens whose lives are in danger” in Afghanistan.
The Philippines, the ambassador said, would just be one of the countries that would be used as transit points and “processing centers.” The United States had asked Germany for the same accommodation, he said.
Since 2021, Qatar has taken in around 6,000 displaced Afghan at two of its military bases until the United States can resettle them. So far, those taken in by Qatar did not all qualify as “former US government employees.”
Iran, with more than 1 million Afghans, and Pakistan, with 250,000, currently have the most number of displaced Afghans, many of whom are undocumented.
On humanitarian grounds, the Philippines hosted thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” who fled their country after it fell to the communists in 1975. A New York Times report then said Manila objected to the arrival of political figures and Vietnamese military personnel, preferring to accept only the elderly, women, and children.
The Philippines became a country of “first asylum” for Vietnamese refugees who were waiting to be resettled in the United States or other countries.
Senator Marcos doubted Romualdez’s statement that the Afghans would stay in the Philippines for less than a month, pointing out that more than 77,000 people who fled Afghanistan had been waiting for their special visas for the past four years.
Biden, she said, had announced that the United States would no longer process Afghans in Virginia after Washington relaxed the law providing sanctuary to them twice.
“The worry, of course, is that elections in the United States are ratcheting up, and politicians everywhere make dreadful mistakes, whether it’s in Washington or in the Philippines,” Marcos said.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JACOB LAZARO AND INQUIRER RESEARCH