July 1, 1988. A broken down boat drifted aimlessly off the northern shores of Palawan. A near by Coast Guard vessel spotted the boat and intercepted it – and the captain was appalled to find there were 100 emaciated, nearly dead Vietnamese on board. They were out of fuel, out of food, out of water; they had set out from Vietnam with supplies for 14 days, and had been on the water for 42 days.
The Coast Guard took them on board and brought them to the nearest village, the fishing village of Liminangcong in the barangay of Taytay. This was standard procedure during the era of the Vietnamese Boat People, those who streamed out of Vietnam after the victory of the North under Ho Chi Minh. There was a First Asylum Camp in Puerto Princesa, and whenever groups landed anywhere up and down the west coast of Palawan, local officials would call the camp and ask that the refugees be fetched.
But these people arrived in such a desperate state that they could not be moved, at least not the day, or the week, in which they arrived. Liminangcong is not known for its wealth, but it was (and is) nevertheless a prosperous fishing village, and the residents stepped up to welcome and care for these refugees
There had originally been 118 in the group which had stealthily filled a fishing boat off the coast of Vietnam, one by one and under cover of darkness, six weeks earlier, in the middle of May. They had been stopped two days later by a Russian Vietnamese Refinery vessel determined to hold them until the coast guard could get there. In fact they held 16 of the men hostage. But when a storm came up, the boat escaped – leaving the 16 behind.
A similar group was suffering such great starvation that they sent three men off the boat and on to an island where there were many birds, hoping to recover eggs – but again the wind came up and the boat drifted off without them.
Vietnam is directly west of Palawan, and one former boat person told me that, if you are very lucky, you simply sit on a boat drinking coffee for three days, and you wash up on shore in Palawan. But now we know few were that lucky – boats filled with refugees turned up on shores everywhere, and thousands more died at sea. Many no doubt set out like this particular boat, with limited fuel, food, and water.
The 100 survivors of this group spent some time recovering from their ordeal, living on the kindness of the residents of the village, and were eventually sent on to Puerto Princesa, then to the U.N. Refugee Processing Center in Morong, Bataan. Here they met with other groups who had landed in Liminangcong or Balabac or San Vicente. In the refugee center they were taught English and “cultural orientation ”, and then it was on to their new homes in Australia or the United States. In these new countries they prospered, as we will see next week.
In the meantime, says Rafael Abis, who has devoted his whole career to refugee work, mostly but not entirely with the UNHCR, there are several things worth remembering here. The people of Liminangcong were incredibly kind, in a way that was life-saving. The people of all of Palawan were open minded and helpful to the members of this new population group. On the whole the Coast Guard, WesCom, the Catholic Church and the Philippine Red Cross handled the very early age refugee crisis very well until the UN and IOM came in 1980. And, Mr. Abis stresses, in the beginning , the U.S. took many refugees, and provided much of the resources for the upkeep of the camps as well as resettlement support. (Of course they had been heavily involved in the war, but they could still have abandoned these war survivors!). Later on, Australia and the Scandinavian countries also took many refugees and were especially strong on family reunification
But we must still recognize that the U.S. did open up to these refugees, with few restrictions, no bans on members of any religion, no requirement for a college degree. It pays to remember that the world was once kinder than it is now: last week more than fifty Somali refugees, people who were fleeing war, and had paid dearly for their passage across the Mediterranean, were simply pushed from their boat, with their hands tied, to perish in the sea.
Do we have to accept this world the way it is now? I think not.
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