Moving People

The Limits of Refugee Policy

This is the fourth piece in the ‘Moving People’ feature, which explores the ways in which people on the move are labelled, remembered, and constrained. The series offers a historical understanding of present-day structures of asylum and immigration.

States respond to refugee movements in different ways at different times. These responses change according to national interests and have implications for people on the move. In the UK, for example, the Home Secretary recently suggested an overhaul of its existing refugee policies. This change would privilege those seeking asylum using ‘legal’ routes and punish those who have entered the country irregularly. Meanwhile, in India, Rohingya refugees that have sought asylum there since 2012 have recently been threatened with deportation. As Hindu nationalism increased, anti-Muslim sentiments did too, subjecting Muslim Rohingya refugees to violence. States like the UK and India are interchanging the way ‘refugees’, ‘asylum-seekers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ are defined.

The statist practice of restricting refugee immigration and categorising people on the move has a long history. During the interwar years, the ‘refugee’ label acquired legal and political meaning. Western states, however, began restricting immigration and found ways to avoid refugees reaching their shores, thinking that refugees threatened social, political, and economic interests. For post-colonial states, like the Philippines, admitting refugees raised similar concerns and questions around who belonged in their societies. The Philippines, an emerging state in the early years of the Cold War, presents an example where the process of state-formation and practices of categorisation had implications for forced migrants. This historical perspective helps us understand how and why different states use labels to admit some refugee groups and not others.

Since 1940, the ‘refugee’ label has had legislative currency in the Philippines. Section 47.B of the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 states that the President is authorized ‘For humanitarian reasons, and when not opposed to the public interest, to admit aliens who are refugees for religious, political, or racial reasons, in such classes of cases and under such conditions as he may prescribe’. The inclusion of Section 47.B was an important milestone in Philippine refugee history, despite its origins under American colonial rule (1901-1946; Philippine independence was granted in 1946). This inclusion can be traced to the so-called ‘Mindanao Plan’, which proposed to resettle 10,000 Jewish refugees over ten years in the archipelago. This provision allowed refugees to enter the country outside of immigration quotas, which were 500 per nationality per year. From this provision, the distinction between the refugee and the migrant was born.

Despite favouring refugee admission, Section 47.B was vague. On the one hand, it left the discretion of who or which groups can be considered as a ‘refugee’ to the president. On the other hand, it gave no clear policy about what happens to refugees once they enter the country and have the right to remain. Thus, from the end of the 1940s through the 1950s, Philippine refugee policy was made on an ad hoc basis.  Although this period was significant in establishing the refugee definition as enshrined in the United Nations’ (UN) 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, I focus on the dynamics that occurred within the confines of Philippine governance within its borders – the Philippines did not ratify the Convention (and its 1967 Protocol) until 1981.

The 1951 Convention was drafted when the UN’s member-states were mainly Western countries. These countries created a limited definition of who a refugee was and what protection entailed based on events in Europe; they also limited refugee status to those who were displaced by events that occurred before 1 January 1951. It was only in 1967 that a Protocol was enacted to address the Convention’s temporal and geographical limitations, albeit expanding a definition that still rested on Western experiences. These laws were non-binding, leaving states to commit to refugee protection based on their own interests. Additionally, many Asian states were and are still not party to these instruments, but have long hosted refugees.

The malleability of Section 47.B allowed the Philippine government to extend the refugee label to some groups and not others. This malleability left room for the emerging state to manoeuvre its refugee policies to pursue national goals. This policy was also influenced by colonial legacies of exclusion. The contrasting responses of the government to displaced persons from China illustrates this point. I specifically look at the responses to Russian refugees and displaced Chinese who were uprooted by the communist takeover in the late 1940s.

The Philippine government hosted over 5,000 Russian refugees from Shanghai from 1949 to 1953. In 1948, the International Refugee Organisation’s (IRO) requested states to resettle these refugees. The IRO was the UN’s refugee agency in the post-war period until 1951 when it was replaced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Although UNHCR succeeded the IRO, its limited mandate meant that the new refugee agency was non-operational and focused solely on providing refugees with legal protection – creating a need for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to fill in gaps of material assistance.

Russian refugees seeing off an Archbishop at the Tubabao island refugee camp, 1949. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Only the Philippines, under the Quirino administration (1943-1953), agreed to extend asylum to these refugees, albeit temporarily until the refugee agency resettled them all. The Philippine government and the IRO came to an agreement. The former provided a space that could accommodate a temporary refugee camp, called the UN Evacuation Centre, which was about 500 miles away from Manila. The latter provided and paid for relief, transport, and resettlement. The IRO agreed to the terms set out and publicly thanked the Philippine government.

Prior to the agreement, the government considered the benefits to refugee ‘rescue’. By granting asylum to Russian forced migrants — internationally recognised as ‘refugees’ under the IRO’s mandate — the Philippine government could present itself as an international humanitarian actor and earn kudos from the international community. There was something to be said about an emerging Asian state ‘rescuing’ displaced Europeans, especially when no other European state agreed to protect Russian refugees. By ‘rescuing’ these refugees, the emerging claimed to be at par with global powers, capable of providing protection and responding to humanitarian issues on the international stage. Thus, Russian refugee admission earned the Philippines international goodwill for relatively little investment, leaving the bulk of responsibility to the IRO, and from 1951, to its replacement the World Council of Churches. The WCC was one of these NGOs that worked closely with UNHCR.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Chinese visitors in the Philippines refused to return to mainland China after the PRC’s establishment in 1949. They stayed in the country beyond the validity of their visas, but soon became a political and immigration problem for the government. To politicians and members of the public, these ‘overstaying Chinese’ were not refugees. They were ‘illegal immigrants’ who violated the provisions of Philippine immigration law. Their illegal status meant that the government could detain and/or deport them.

Anti-Sinicism existed among politicians, and this influenced the government’s decision to deny granting asylum to displaced Chinese. Anti-Chinese sentiments stemmed from colonial legacies of exclusion that can be traced to the Spanish (1565-1898) and American colonial states, which marginalised and persecuted Chinese migrants that settled in the islands. The post-colonial state perpetuated these legacies and targeted Chinese migrants through security, immigration, and economic policies. During the Cold War, the Philippine government took an anti-Communist stance and conducted brutal raids on Chinese migrants they believed had communist associations. These hostile attitudes seeped into how many politicians saw the ‘overstaying Chinese’.

Archival sources show that in 1958 a few politicians attempted to address the ‘overstaying Chinese’ issue. They were not only an immigration matter anymore but became entangled into diplomatic matters with Nationalist China / Taiwan (the Philippines did not recognise the PRC until 1975) where politicians wanted to deport these persons to. A small cohort of senators were in favour of extending asylum and permanent residence on ‘humanitarian grounds’ to ‘deserving’ Chinese who would be identified through a screening process. This bill was provisionally called the ‘Refugee Relief Act’.

The bill never passed into legislation. Those who opposed granting asylum and residence used anti-Sinitic tropes and claimed that accepting Chinese refugees would be ‘oppressive to the economy’.  Despite their displacement, government officials refused to extend the ‘refugee’ label as this would mean the right to remain for thousands of displaced Chinese. Politicians feared they could de-stabilise Philippine society and its economy. The precarious status of ‘overstaying Chinese’ only ended in 1975 when the Marcos administration-cum-dictatorship liberalised the naturalisation process for migrants (not refugees).

Additionally, UNHCR did not get involved in this matter. Although the question of protecting Chinese refugees in Hong Kong in the 1950s were debated in the UN, UNHCR did not intervene for those in the Philippines. Unlike Russian refugee ‘rescue’, this lack of international recognition of displaced Chinese did not persuade the government to extend asylum as there was no international credit to be gained.

The Philippine government’s contrasting response to Russian and Chinese refugees demonstrate how the ‘refugee’ label held power in the archipelago. The state’s selective application was related to post-colonial national interests and influenced by colonial attitudes towards migrants and minorities. As much as the ‘refugee’ label acknowledged displaced persons as a special category of people on the move who deserved protection, the label also created inequalities among the state’s ‘others’. In a sense, Philippine refugee admission went hand-in-hand with the marginalisation of migrants and minorities.

This episode of refugee history reminds us that during the process of state-formation, those in power are constantly redefining who belongs and loading terms like ‘refugees’, ‘asylum-seekers’, and ‘illegal immigrants’ with political and bureaucratic meaning. States have the power to interchange these labels at the national level. The examples above of UK and India’s changing asylum demonstrate this – they made conscious decisions to redefine who a ‘refugee’ is versus a ‘migrant’ in the name of national security, development, international relations, and/or other interests. When we encounter these labels today, we need to engage critically with them and ask whose and what interests they serve, and what consequences these have for those uprooted from their homes.

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