Philippine President Benigno Aquino said his country cannot afford to take in Australian-processed refugees permanently.
Aquino said the Philippines is “seriously considering” and “studying” a proposal by the Australian government for his country to take in refugees. But he told reporters there were a few factors to consider.
“Australia can recognize that we do have a significantly bigger population than they do. We have challenges to meeting the needs of our people right now. We would want to assist but there are limitations to how far we can assist," he said.
About one-quarter of the Philippines population of 100 million lives in poverty.
Earlier this month, Australia’s immigration minister said the foreign ministers of the two countries were in talks about a potential deal wherein Australia would provide funds to the Philippines for relocating the refugees. A statement from the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said the two sides discussed refugees and their obligations under international law.
Aquino said, “If this proposed agreement is not one of a transitory nature, is not one of just being a transit point but actually relocating these people here. … We feel we are not in a capacity at this point in time to afford permanent residency to these people.”
Aquino referred to a 1979 agreement when the country accepted refugees fleeing the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
He said 400,000 refugees were processed at two locations in the Philippines for what was supposed to be a two or three year temporary stay. However, he pointed out they stayed on for 15 years and some became permanent residents.
In recent years, thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled persecution in Myanmar. Others from Iran and Afghanistan have taken to the sea in hopes of reaching Australia.
But since 2013, the government in Canberra has kept boat refugees off its shores. It has instead processed them for relocation offshore at camps on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.
Last year, Australia offered Cambodia tens of millions of dollars to accept the refugees from Nauru. But only six have accepted the offer of resettlement, and one of them, a Rohingya man, has already asked to be returned to Myanmar.
Cambodia is reportedly receiving as much as $40 million in aid from Australia in exchange for accepting the asylum seekers, a deal heavily criticized by refugee rights groups.
The U.N. refugee agency has said it undermines the principles of the refugee convention, to which both nations are signatories.
More than 600 refugees and asylum seekers are thought to be on Nauru. Hundreds more are in detention on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island under an arrangement with Australia. Most are believed to be from countries in South Asia and the Middle East.