UNHCR lauds Philippines for landmark mechanism to protect refugees and the stateless

News Stories, 6 November 2012

© UNHCR/F.T.Temprosa
Philippine government representatives and partners assess the protection needs of people at risk of statelessness in Lapu village, South Cotabato.

MANILA, Philippines, November 6 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday hailed the Philippines for being the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to establish a procedure to protect both refugees and stateless people.

The Department of Justice of the Philippines recently published a circular that enhanced its current system of determining refugee status and put in place a procedure to ascertain whether a person is stateless. The new procedure takes effect today and is an important step to ensure the Philippines meets its obligations under the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which it ratified last year, the first ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) member state to do so.

The new mechanism is a testament to the genuine humanitarian spirit in the Philippines, said Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR's representative in the Philippines. This unified approach provides the widest possible protection net for refugees and the stateless in the most effective way.

Refugees and stateless people are protected under Philippine law. With the new procedure, there is a way to unify refugees with extended family members such as grandparents. Asylum-seekers have the right to a lawyer and interpreter during the process, and they cannot be deported while undergoing the procedure, ensuring respect for international law.

Other safeguards to protect asylum-seekers and refugees were integrated in the procedure, such as special measures for unaccompanied children. "The refugees and stateless people are the most vulnerable," Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said in a statement. "They fall easily through the cracks of our system. Consider the challenge of having no government to safeguard your rights. You have no government that will ensure yours and your family's physical security," she added.

The procedure to ascertain if a person is stateless adopted key recommendations of UNHCR. Focusing on stateless migrants, the procedure allows applications to be made regardless of immigration status, and guarantees the right to an interview, lawyer and interpreter. It shares common features with the refugee process.

The 1954 Statelessness Convention establishes a legal status for stateless people to ensure that they can live in safety and dignity until they acquire a nationality. It is particularly useful for addressing the situation of stateless migrants who might otherwise be bounced from one country to another and end up in long-term detention or destitution.

The Philippines became the first state in the region to create such a mechanism, joining Moldova and Georgia as the third in the world to fulfill its pledge, made during a meeting of states last year, to establish a statelessness determination procedure.

The government also formed a unit dedicated to protecting both refugees and stateless people with its own budget resources and allowing it to coordinate with agencies to reduce and prevent statelessness. A former group handled asylum claims only.