Biden and Marcos discussed Afghans’ transfer to Philippines during White House meeting

Jason Gutierrez
2023.06.16
Manila
Biden and Marcos discussed Afghans’ transfer to Philippines during White House meeting People who have been evacuated from Afghanistan arrive at Tirana International Airport, in Albania, after Taliban insurgents entered Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, Aug. 27, 2021.
Florion Goga/Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden raised the issue of the Philippines temporarily housing Afghan nationals when he and Filipino counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met in Washington in May, the Southeast Asian nation’s top diplomat told a Senate inquiry Friday. 

The two longtime defense allies are negotiating the transfer to the Philippines of Afghans formerly employed by the United States government and their dependents who are applying for special immigrant visas (SIV) through the American Embassy here, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said. 

Philippine and U.S. officials have yet to publicly say how many Afghan nationals could be sent to the Philippines through a potential SIV agreement, while Manalo’s department insisted on Friday that these Afghans should not be considered refugees.

Tens of thousands of Afghans and their families were evacuated abroad during a round-the-clock airlift from Kabul in August 2021, as they fled when the last of the U.S. forces pulled out of the country and that nation’s capital fell to Taliban extremists.   

Biden “briefly raised the issue with President Marcos during his visit last May,” Manalo said, adding that Washington had also formally sent the government a letter about its request.

The foreign secretary was invited to a public hearing by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. It is headed by President Marcos’ sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, who initiated the investigation to shed light into the diplomatic deal, which was initially kept under wraps.

Manalo said a “concept note” about a proposal following the U.S. request was also transmitted to his office by President Marcos’ staff.

 “So we immediately launched consultations with relevant Philippine agencies to study the concept note and assess the request,” Manalo said.

Manalo said other government agencies, such as the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, the Department of Defense, Department of Justice and the national police were informed about the plan as early as last October.

Manalo said his agency did not hold public discussions about the matter because nothing was final and “we were still consulting and trying to assess the implications of this proposal.”

Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the U.S., said the Biden administration had formally requested that Afghan nationals be given temporary haven in the Southeast Asian nation while their papers were being processed.

“It was also followed up with us through the State Department, whether this was possible for us to consider. And so we immediately sent this request to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Secretary,” he recalled.

“I spoke about it briefly, and he [Manalo] said he was going to have this studied before any action can be taken,” Romualdez said.

Ma. Teresita Daza, spokeswoman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, described the bilateral negotiations over special immigration visas for Afghans as “humanitarian in nature.”

“[I]t will not involve the admission or hosting of Afghan refugees,” the state-run Philippine News Agency quoted her as saying. 

The Afghan nationals are “not refugees but Afghans who have worked with the U.S. government and their qualified family members,” she said.

PH-AF-2.jpg
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, May 1, 2023. [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

Sen. Marcos, who filed a resolution earlier this week to investigate the visa deal, argued that would-be migrants to the U.S. could be sheltered in other countries “closer to Afghanistan.”

“During the past year, security and espionage threats have substantially increased because of the sharp escalation in tension between rival superpowers,” Marcos said without elaborating. She scolded her brother’s government for a “lack of transparency” on the deal.

“We need to know the real nature of the agreement between the Philippines and the United States and the course of action the executive branch plans to take,” Marcos said.

The senator filed a resolution directing the Senate to conduct an inquiry into the plan because government officials privy to the proposal were said to have been surprised by the U.S. request that the Philippines provide a haven to Afghan nationals. Her brother’s office had also kept the deal under wraps.

On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said it remains committed to “the thousands of brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over the course of two decades.” It declined comment on Friday when contacted by reporters.

President Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, in 2021 said he would allow the entry of Afghan nationals who were fleeing the Taliban’s return to power in their homeland.

But that plan never took off amid fears among the Filipino public that it could lead to a spillover of violence, especially in the restive southern Philippines, where violent extremists and militant groups have maintained links with foreign terrorists.

Open-door policy

Sen. Francis Tolentino, an ally of President Marcos, said the Philippines had a duty in assisting Afghan nationals fleeing violence in their country. He noted that the country was a signatory to various United Nations conventions on protecting refugees.

“The Philippines has a proud history of extending humanitarian aid and hospitality to foreign nationals in dire need,” he said in a statement.

In the past, he said the Philippines through its “open-door policy” had welcomed European Jews fleeing violence in their countries and offered them sanctuary.

“Jewish refugees who were fleeing persecution in Europe found shelter in the Philippines,” he said. “Also, following the Vietnam War, the country provided temporary shelter and assistance to Vietnamese refugees before their resettlement to other countries.”

Under President Duterte, the country also extended assistance to Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, Tolentino stressed.

From 1937 to 1941, when the Philippines was a U.S. colony, President Manuel L. Quezon admitted some 1,200–1,300 Jews who were fleeing from Nazi Germany, German-occupied Europe, and Shanghai in Japanese-occupied China to the Philippine Commonwealth.

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