The Refugee Archipelago? Political responses in the Philippines to forced migration in the twentieth century

  • Therese Sunga

Student thesis: Phd


Philippine history is in part a history of refugees. This thesis demonstrates that from the 1930s to the mid-1990s, refugees were associated with the process of Philippine state-formation. In its various political forms, the state granted asylum to a succession of refugee populations. The thesis focuses on the political ramifications of three episodes: German Jews (1938-1941), who were admitted by Manuel Quezon (1935-1944), Russians from China (1949-1953), admitted by Elpidio Quirino (1948-1953), and Indochinese refugees (1975-1996) who arrived during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986). By drawing attention to the state, the thesis investigates how it exercised sovereignty in relation to the country’s borders. As the guardian of ‘national’ interests, the Filipino state confronted a series of refugee crises at different points in the twentieth century. Adopting a comparative approach, this thesis highlights the ad hoc nature of Philippine refugee policy. Each episode entailed different state responses to displacement, including the devolution of responsibility for relief and welfare on to non-state actors. It is argued that in key respects these non-state actors assumed state-like functions. The case studies demonstrate how policy was dynamic and changed as the result of the emerging state’s shifting interests domestically and internationally. In the guise of humanitarianism, political calculations outweighed refugee needs or the pursuit of permanent solutions to displacement. The Philippines was a refugee-hosting state, albeit in a selective fashion and in accordance with national and geo-political interests. These included positioning itself as an international ‘humanitarian’ actor. At the same time, the process of Philippine nation-state formation involved targeting Muslim and Chinese minorities. Any study of policy towards refugees must also consider government policies towards these ‘others’, some of whom were forced to seek asylum in neighbouring countries. In this sense, the Philippines was not only a refugee-hosting but also a refugee-producing state. The Philippines provides an opportunity to investigate distinctive elements of the international refugee regime. The refugee regime consisted of multiple actors, foremost among them the state that acted as gatekeeper. Other actors also played an important role, such as intergovernmental refugee agencies and international and locally-based non-governmental organisations that exercised a degree of autonomy. Meanwhile, refugees occupied a subordinate position in the regime: they remained on the margins. Displacement thus shaped the modern Philippine state. The presence of refugees, the (internal) displacement of others, and the formulation of a refugee policy were all associated with state-formation at different junctures. The emerging state’s role in refugee ‘rescue’ has been peripheral in the dominant international historiography about these displaced populations. Meanwhile, in Philippine national history, much of the research has centred on individual cases of refugee admissions. By placing the Philippine state at the centre of investigation and comparing different episodes, this dissertation expands our understanding of the role emerging states in the Global South played in the international refugee regime, and the extent to which refugees constituted the state.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Gatrell (Supervisor) & Yang-Wen Zheng (Supervisor)


  • international refugee regime
  • refugee policy
  • state
  • Philippines
  • displacement
  • refugees
  • NGO

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