EXPLAINER: What’s the fuss about bringing Afghans to the Philippines?


LAST week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Imee Marcos filed a resolution calling for a Senate inquiry into the supposedly secret “negotiations” between the Philippines and the United States to “house” thousands of Afghan “refugees” in the Philippines.

In filing Senate Resolution 651, the sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wanted to know the “real intention” behind the US request to accommodate the “Afghan refugees in a temporary housing program.” Although still in recess, the Senate foreign relations committee summoned officials from various agencies from the Executive Department and held a committee hearing Friday.

Senator Imee Marcos, chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Relations, seeks clarification from Department of Foreign Affairs officials, led by Secretary Enrique Manalo, as to why the United States has chosen the Philippines as one of the countries to temporarily house Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants from Afghanistan. Presiding at a committee inquiry Friday, June 16, 2023, Marcos pointed out that if the US is unable or unwilling to temporarily accommodate the SIV applicants, “why don’t they consider US territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico, and Guantanamo?” In response, Manalo said that aside from being a partner and a treaty ally, the Philippines’s long tradition of providing humanitarian assistance was also considered by the US.

Based on the discussions during the Senate committee hearing and interviews from sources of the BusinessMirror, here are the highlights of the US request:

1. First, the US has sent feelers,

asking the Philippines if the latter can temporarily accommodate Afghans who worked for them in Afghanistan and wanted to resettle permanently in the US together with their families. They are not “refugees,” as strictly defined under the US laws and international convention.

2. The historical context:

· The US waged war in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. During the 20 years of war, the US employed thousands of Afghans in the US Embassy in Kabul, as well as interpreters and guides for their military personnel.

· Two years before the US pulled out of Afghanistan, US Congress passed a law allowing eligible Afghans to apply for permanent residency under the so-called Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program.

· To qualify for the SIV, Afghans must be employed by or on behalf of the US government in Afghanistan, provided “faithful and valuable service” to the US government, and experienced or experiencing an ongoing serious threat following their association with the Americans. Most of the first batch of approved SIV applicants fled to the US on their own.

· When the US government decided to pull out of Afghanistan in 2021, it brought with them 36,821 Afghan SIV applicants.

· Unfortunately, thousands of SIV applicants remained in Afghanistan. According to human-rights groups, these former US employees have become targets of the new Taliban regime. Many of these applicants are women, or have women and children as dependents.

· Since the US Embassy in Kabul has suspended operations, the US State Department had to process SIV applications through other US embassies in other countries like Pakistan or Qatar.

· According to the US State Department, a total of 8,950 SIV applicants were relocated from Afghanistan for continued Afghan SIV processing from September 2021 to February 2023.

· As of March 2023, there are still 152,301 Afghan SIV holders and applicants in Afghanistan.

In this August 22, 2021, file photo, a family walks toward a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an
evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

3. US request to the Philippines

· Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said US President Joe Biden mentioned briefly the request to accommodate the Afghan SIV applicants during the visit of President Marcos Jr. in May.

· Manalo said the US State Department submitted a concept note which the DFA has submitted to various security and relevant agencies for comment. He read some parts of the concept note during the hearing:

* All Afghans will be traveling with valid passports, and would “have already undergone rigorous security briefings and background checks” by the US chief of mission.

* All costs will be shouldered by the US government.

* US and the Philippine governments will determine the suitable site to house the Afghans including children.

* The Philippines will impose mobility restrictions

* The US committed no one would be left behind in the Philippines, including those who will be denied visas

· The US has not provided the number of Afghans it is requesting the Philippine government to host. Philippine Ambassador to Washington DC Jose “Babe” Romualdez said the numbers may go up to 50,000 including children, although the US State Department said the number may be negotiated.

· Manalo said there was a suggestion among DFA officials to accommodate a small number, “probably a thousand applicants for a pilot program.”

· US law requires that SIV applicants be extended the same benefits as refugees—transportation and resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and others.

· US Embassy in Manila acting spokesman Stephen Dove refused to comment on their requests when pressed by reporters. “We do not comment on ongoing diplomatic discussions,” he said.

· “The Biden administration remains committed to the thousands of brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the US over the course of the past two decades,” Dove said in a message sent to reporters.

4. Why the Philippines?

· Ranking diplomatic sources said the US Embassy in Manila is the second largest US consular mission in the world. Given the consular capacity in Manila, the US thought of transporting the SIV Afghan applicants to the Philippines for processing of their visa application.

During the Senate hearing, Manalo said that aside from being a defense treaty ally of the Americans, the Philippines has a long-standing tradition of providing humanitarian assistance to people who are being persecuted.

The Philippines had hosted refugees fleeing war such as the 30,000 European Jews during World War II, South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, 30,000 Kuomintang members during the Chinese Civil War, and “White Russians” during the Socialist Revolution in 1917.

Senator Francis “Tol” Tolentino raises no objection to the proposed temporary hosting of Afghans awaiting resettlement in the United States. He said that if the applicants are correctly vetted, housed in a secured area, and would not incur additional expenses for the government, he sees no problem with the proposal. “If I may be allowed to express my personal sentiments, I don’t see anything wrong here… If they (Afghans) were truly vetted,” he said in mixed English and Filipino. “The only issue here is the process, which is shrouded in a non-transparent manner, not revealed to the country and not fully explained. But it is not the Afghans’ fault,” Tolentino added. (Bibo Nueva España/Senate PRIB)

TWO major considerations were raised during the interagency meetings and Senate hearings:

1. Security issue

Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (Nica), the National Bureau of Investigation and the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos “vehemently opposed” the proposal for Afghans to be temporarily housed in the Philippines.

The NBI and Nica think there may be “sleeper terrorist cells” among the Afghan communities and may be activated while here in the Philippines.

The NCMF, meanwhile, thinks chances of “sleeper cells” among the SIV applicants are little. But they fret that sympathizers among the Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines may feel that their Afghan Muslim brothers and sisters would be discriminated against by restricting their movements.

“We are not particularly concerned about sleepers, but more of being targets of an attack,” Atty. Manggay Guro Jr., NCMF chief of staff, said. “As much as we like to welcome the Afghans, because they are brothers and sisters in faith, but with the discussions ongoing, we are not sure about their protection.”

2. Sovereignty and visa policy

Vice President Duterte thinks allowing the US to solely vet the integrity of the Afghan applicants may impinge on the sovereignty of the Philippines.

“It seems that the vetting process may be done by the US. We think it is interference to our exclusive determination of who can enter into our country,” Michael Wesley Poa, DepEd Undersecretary and chief of staff, told senators, quoting the position paper signed by Vice President Duterte.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ma. Teresa Lazaro said the initial US proposal is for the Afghan refugees to be flown directly from Kabul to the Philippines. But this setup may be another major logistical concern for the Philippine government because of its visa policy.

Currently, the Afghans are considered Category A or restricted nationals. This means they must be interviewed face-to-face by the Philippine consul.

Since there is no Philippine Embassy in Afghanistan, they would need to be flown to the Embassy that has jurisdiction over Afghanistan—in Islamabad, which has a very limited number of consular staff.

Manalo stressed that the US and the Philippines have not entered into a negotiation yet. These issues, among other things, are still subject to interagency approval.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said at the Senate hearing that while he was still new in office, he felt that the issue might put the Philippines in a very precarious damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.

“There are ways to make things legally permissible, but we have to anticipate the what-ifs,” Teodoro said. “We have to bring on the other side [US] and be certain that they are ready, willing and able to execute their undertakings.”

Image credits: AP/Shekib Rahmani, Senate PRIB, Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/US Marine Corps via AP, Bibo Nueva España/Senate PRIB