BANGKOK, Thailand (CNS) — Asia’s most Catholic country, the Philippines, is poised to burnish its reputation as the most refugee-friendly nation in Asia as it prepares to ink a deal with Australia to take in as many as 1,000 refugees from the controversial Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea.
The camp, along with another in the impoverished Pacific island nation of Nauru, has become a political burden for Australia’s coalition government. Both facilities are part of an offshore detention program that sees Australia hand over huge sums of money to needy countries, effectively outsourcing its obligations under international law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The camps are notorious for poor living conditions and rife with accusations of violence including rape, child abuse and one murder.
Under the prospective deal with the Philippines, Australia will pay about $109 million over five years, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
The two nations already are involved in discussions about a wider strategic partnership agreement covering the migration of people as well as trade and defense. Australia appears to be using the lure of the agreement as leverage, reported ucanews.com.
Australia and the Philippines are core members of the emerging Pacific alliance with the United States. Japan and South Korea as well as Thailand, the strongest U.S. ally on the Southeast Asian mainland, are included in the alliance.
The pending refugee deal has the backing of key cabinet ministers in the Philippine government, including the secretaries of justice, defense and foreign affairs.
Albert del Rosario, Philippines’ foreign affairs secretary, gave verbal assurance to his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, that the deal would go ahead when they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York Oct. 2, the news agency reported.
Bishop confirmed that talks on migration took place at the meeting.
The deal is now awaiting approval from Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who has previously expressed some reservations.
On Sept. 8 he said that although the Philippines is open to taking in refugees, the resources of the country must be considered.
“The culture is there, but we want to make sure that we manage it properly, that we don’t take more than we can handle,” Aquino said during a public forum, the Philippine media reported. “A vast majority of our people are still living in poverty. We would like to take our resources to better our people.”
Australia has a track record of using its wealth to outsource its refugee obligations to poorer nations.
In 2014, the country inked a controversial deal with Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, to take in refugees from the Nauru detention center. Cambodia has so few jobs that that at least 500,000 of its citizens have left to find employment — often illegally — in neighboring Thailand in order to send money back to their families.
The Philippines faces its own employment challenges with several million of its citizen working across Asia and the Middle East in low-paying jobs as domestic helpers, hospitality industry workers or manual laborers.
But the Philippines also has the best track record in Southeast Asia for its acceptance and integration of refugees, having done so after the war in Vietnam, a nation with a large Catholic population.
Despite senior cabinet backing in the Philippines, there are a range of doubts about the pending agreement.
There is concern that the deal will put the Philippines squarely on the map for people smugglers in the region. Options for traffickers have dried up with the clampdown by authorities in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia following the May refugee boat crisis, which saw thousands of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants and asylum seekers stranded at sea.
There is also a belief in some quarters that many of the refugees will not be satisfied with the Philippines, having set out — and paid their money — to get to first-world Australia. They may try again, leading to problems with Australia. The Philippines looks at the stress that people movement issues placed on the Australia-Indonesia relationship and does not want to end up in a similar situation.
The final concern is ethical. Many refugee lawyers believe that Australia is illegally dodging its obligations under the Refugee Convention and that by assisting Australia in the continuing outsourcing of its obligations the Philippines becomes complicit.