In 2005, a spark of hope came when the U.S. immigration officials returned to Manila to review the cases of over 2000 Vietnamese refugees who spent over 17 years in the Philippines waiting for resettlement. They have been living in the Philippines without legal status, ownership nor employment rights. While nervously waiting for a judgment day, the STATELESS Vietnamese hung on the hope of finding a permanent home.
STATELESS VIETNAMESE IN THE PHILIPPINES
As I prepared to travel to the Philippines on a production shoot for my documentary “Bolinao 52” in 2005, I began to learn about the predicaments of the Stateless Vietnamese. Close to 2000 of these so-called “long-stayers” have been living on the fringes of the Filipino society since 1989 when the UNHCR-sponsored Comprehensive Plan of Action was enforced. They were the citizens of nowhere. Without legal status in the Philippines, their lives hung by the whim of sympathy. Unable to buy house, own business, travel freely nor work legally, they resorted to selling goods in black markets and creative ways to make a living. For 16 years they drifted in uncertainty. Not a place called home, the long-stayers carried on a dream of being resettled.
Hoi Trinh, a lawyer and activist from Australia started a legal aid center called V.O.I.C.E. (acronym for Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscious Empowerment) in Manila in 1998. He was instrumental in lobbying for the long-stayers resettlement. Trinh visited the Philippines in 1997 on a fact-finding trip when he became bored with his job at a legal firm in Australia. There, he discovered the Stateless Vietnamese. He subsequently left his stable, corporate job, moved to Manila and led an international lobbying campaign to win freedom for his people. After years of knocking on doors, Trinh wins the support of many high-powered politicians like U.S. Senators, John McCain and Edward Kennedy. He raised formidable monies through fundraising events from overseas Vietnamese communities in the U.S., Australia and Canada to sustain his office in Manila. This legal aid center provided the necessary support to keep the Stateless’s hopes alive.
In 2005, after 8 long years of international lobbying, Trinh was able to convince U.S. officials to return to Manila to take another look at over 2,000 Stateless cases. After a few weeks of interviews, the U.S. officials agreed to accept approximately 1500 people. However, more than 500 others were being denied resettlement they were married to Filipino spouses. Because they arrived illegally to the Islands, even after marrying Filipino citizens, these 500 Stateless did not qualify for Filipino citizenship. Nor they could be resettled in the U.S. Nevertheless, by the end of 2007 those who were rejected by the U.S are eventually accepted by other countries like Canada, Norway and Australia, thanks to the tireless advocacy of Hoi Trinh.
Considered a success story in all statelessness situations, almost all of the Stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines are now enjoying their basic citizenship rights in Western countries like United States, Canada, Norway, etc.