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Refuge and Asylum | Philippines |

Philippines Historical Development Immigration and Immigration Policies Emigration and Emigration Policies Citizenship and Naturalization Refuge and Asylum Irregular Migration Challenges and Future Development References

Refuge and Asylum

Michael R.M Abrigo

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Filipino refugees from Sabah in their living quarters in Bongao. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Relative to other migration flows, refuge and asylum issues are not very prominent in the Philippines. After the Second World War, the government granted asylum to refugees from Russia, and to individuals of Jewish descent who were fleeing from persecution by the Nazi government. Chinese citizens sought refuge in the country following the communist revolution in 1949. In 1975, the country served an important role in preparing refugees who were affected by the Vietnam War to resettle in North America, Europe and Australia. A small number of Vietnamese who could not be admitted in the United States resettled in the Philippines. The influx of the Indochinese "boat people" was the largest flow of refugees to the Philippines in recent history. The Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan reported that between January 1980 and July 1990 the Center processed 292,185 refugees from Vietnam (62%), Cambodia (34%) and Laos (13%). The number of refugees in the Philippines had declined considerably from about 20,000 persons in 1990 to less than 200 individuals at the start of the twenty-first century (cf. Figure 4).

Refugees from the Philippines

Figure 4: Refugee Population in and from the Philippines (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The Philippines has, on the other hand, also been a major country of refugee origin in the Southeast Asia region. Armed conflict in the Mindanao region in the Southern Philippines forced residents to flee and take refuge in neighboring Malaysia, especially Sabah, in the 1970s to early 1980s. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants estimates that about 500,000 Filipino Muslims were in refugee-like circumstances, of which 45,000 were reclassified as refugees, in Malaysia in 1998. The refugee status of Filipino Muslims was later revoked in July 2001 by the Malaysian government in favor of annually renewable work permits. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that in 2010 about 61,300 persons of concern in Malaysia originated from the Philippines.


In 1981, the Philippines ratified the UN Convention (1951) and the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967). More recently, in 2011 the country has become a party to the 1954 Convention related to the Status of Stateless Persons, the only state in Southeast Asia to have done so thus far. In response to having ratified the 1954 UN Convention, in 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued the Department Circular No. 058 on "Establishing the Refugee and Stateless Status Determination Procedure", which provides for the standard of proof to establish refugee or stateless status, and allows for the suspension of deportation proceedings pending the results of the application. The scope of the Refugee Processing Unit of DOJ was likewise broadened under the circular to include stateless persons, and renamed Refugee and Stateless Persons Protection Unit. The "Philippine Immigration Act of 1940", which predates the UN Convention, contains provisions on the admission for humanitarian reasons of refugees and asylum-seekers. The Philippines serves as a transit country for at-risk refugees who are en route to resettlement in a third country. Under an agreement with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration in 2009, the government shall provide a temporary haven for refugees in need of immediate international protection. The agreement, together with the DOJ issuance, is expected to result in an increase in the number of asylum-seekers in the country, which averaged 39 persons annually between 2000 and 2005.

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Michael R.M. Abrigo is Research Specialist at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS). The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the PIDS.
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