Refugee transit point: Philippines

The heartrending photograph of a Turkish policeman holding the limp corpse of a Syrian boy on a beach in Turkey has shaken the world into facing the refugee crisis. That searing image is a reminder of another moment in history when a picture stunned everyone who saw it. It appeared in 1937 in the print media in the West, showing a wailing Chinese infant sitting with singed clothes among the ruins left by the Japanese bombing of Shanghai.

Thanks to today’s technology, news agencies around the world disseminate images instantaneously. Seconds after they’re transmitted, photographs can be seen by the public via TV screens and computer devices. But the picture of the Shanghai baby took a while to reach the media in the United States. Interestingly, it got there by way of the Philippines.

A Chinese photographer named H.S. Wong who worked for the American Hearst Corp. had shot the picture. He gave the film to staff in a US warship leaving Shanghai for the Philippines. From Manila it was flown to the United States. Later the famed American journalist Harold Isaacs described the picture as “one of the most successful ‘propaganda’ pieces of all time.” That iconic photograph from Shanghai showed the shocking events in Asia to the Western world which had not been paying much attention to the second Sino-Japanese war being waged at the time.

Another “propaganda piece,” one that helped bring the Vietnam War to an end, was of an agonized girl running naked down a road as she fled napalm bombing. Shot by Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut who worked for The Associated Press, the picture succeeded in galvanizing Americans into agitating for their government’s withdrawal from that Asian country.

After the US pullout, countless Vietnamese fled their beleaguered country in boats bound for the Philippines and other Asian countries, where they were taken in temporarily, with the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) providing assistance. The migrants were eventually received in Western countries, most of them opting for the United States—in the same way that today’s refugees sailing in leaky boats across the Mediterranean want to head for Germany, the European Union’s most prosperous nation.

The period starting in 1979 saw more than three million Vietnamese refugees comprising the largest wave of migration in that century. From Hong Kong, which became a major receiving point for the refugees, I saw striking photographs in the media of desperate people crammed into boats arriving in the territory. The UNHCR struggled to process the migrants who were eventually sent to the United States and Canada.

Hong Kong, with its population of over seven million, currently has 9,900 refugees, mostly from South Asia. Many have fled the conflict in their countries but some are economic migrants seeking a better life. Hong Kong aid agencies screen them and grant them basic living essentials, then process them for relocation to the receiving Western countries. But as an analyst has written, “Hong Kong’s response [to the crisis] has been to provide minimal resources and maximum inconvenience.

I recall walking down Broadway in New York some years ago and stopping by an itinerant vendor selling some curios. We chatted while I looked through his wares, and when he learned I was from the Philippines, he related having spent a year in a Palawan refugee camp, awaiting relocation to the United States. Obviously he had survived, but still struggled to earn a living as a peddler on Manhattan’s streets.

Recently a Tamil man living with his family on the outlying island in Hong Kong where I reside told me of having been a Tamil Tiger before he fled Sri Lanka. (The minority Tamils were a guerrilla organization seeking to establish an independent homeland and in constant conflict with the majority Sinhalese. They were hunted down and killed in what was a protracted civil war.) He showed me photographs of himself in uniform and said he had killed some of the enemy—something I’m sure he did not disclose to the local UN agency that had granted him refugee status.

Pondering on today’s massive wave of migration in Europe, I entertain visions of some refugees settling on some islands in the Philippines, backed by the UNHCR, of course. A pipe dream, but a wish nevertheless.

This piece was published in the Philippine Inquirer on 17 September 2015.