If the formal request of the United States government is granted, at least 50,000 Afghans fleeing from Taliban rule will soon arrive in the Philippines, where they are expected to stay for at least two months while awaiting their special immigrant visas. Most of the refugees are former employees of the U.S. government in Afghanistan.
The proposal was submitted in October last year, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris discussed it when she visited Manila the following month, and President Joe Biden followed it up with Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. during their meeting at the White House in May.
The Marcos government said it is still carefully evaluating the proposal, although it is expected to make a decision next month. In the meantime, several senators, the country’s vice president, and security officials have raised questions about its cost, logistics, and the potential national security implications.
The president’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos, who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, initiated a probe about the deal and expressed her fear that some refugees could be working as spies.
“During the past year, security and espionage threats have substantially increased because of the sharp escalation in tension between rival superpowers,” Marcos said.
During the hearing, Marcos was more emphatic with her questions. “Doesn’t the fact that the U.S. no longer wants to house these foreigners in safe havens within the territory of the U.S. raise concerns for us? They are claiming that there will be very low risk in security, that highly vetted groups will be the only ones coming, and that the Special Immigrant Visa is assured, and yet, they don’t want them,” Marcos said.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said he supports the proposal, but he also wanted to know why the refugees can’t be relocated directly to the U.S. “My question is: How come the U.S. cannot do all those temporary measures, the processing and the hosting themselves in U.S. soil? I’m sure the U.S. has better and bigger existing buildings for this use than us,” he said.
The National Bureau of Investigation and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) are worried that “sleeper cells” might be activated which can pose security risks, especially in the country’s Muslim-dominated areas.
“We also express the same anxiety because they are given also the opportunity for some terrorists to travel and that is a problem of records checking and it will pose some security concerns later on,” NICA Director General Ricardo de Leon said during the senate hearing.
Asked for her comment, Vice President Sara Duterte sent a letter to the Anti-Terrorism Council on April 20 containing her “vehement objection and opposition to the proposal in its entirety.” Her spokesperson also told the media about the vice president’s fear that the proposal will undermine the country’s sovereignty. “In the proposal, it seems that the vetting process will be done by (the U.S.). Therefore, this is an interference into our exclusive determination as to who can enter our country.”
It is unlikely that Marcos will reject the request of the U.S. government after he established closer relations with the Biden government. In fact, as mentioned by Senator Marcos in her resolution, the Presidential Management Staff has already conducted a “Technical Coordination Meeting” with other government agencies about the hosting of Afghan refugees.
Senator Francis Tolentino reminded the public about the Philippines’ open-door policy when it comes to refugees. The country welcomed the arrival of Jewish refugees during World War II, Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the 1970s, and Rohingya Muslims who escaped Myanmar in 2019.
“I don’t see any reason to hype the hysteria all over again. Is it legal to help a fellow human being in need? Is it illegal to provide temporary shelter to someone in need?” Tolentino said in response to the suspicion of some of his fellow legislators.
But the issue is more than just extending assistance to refugees since there are potentially serious ramifications on security, sovereignty, and transparency in financing. Also, building shelters for those displaced by war is a sensitive topic in a country where decades of local armed conflicts have disrupted the lives of thousands. Some might even think that the government is ready to house foreign refugees while residents in Marawi City, which was attacked by Islamic State-linked groups in 2017, have yet to go home in order to rebuild their houses.