10 Times the Philippines Became a Sanctuary for Refugees From Around the World

Filipinos know struggle. They know the conflict, war, violence, and suffering. They know what it’s like to be colonized, ostracized, and discriminated. So it should come as no surprise that when other nations cast out their unwanted citizens, Filipinos opened their arms when others closed their doors.

“What makes Filipinos special is that they seem to naturally and intuitively understand and empathize with people who have been uprooted from their homes by war, conflict, violence, persecution, and calamities,” said Yasser Saad of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Philippines. “At a time when expressions of solidarity are becoming rare, at a time when inward-looking, security-focused policies become dominant, Filipinos remains a beacon of hope and humanitarian spirit.”

Filipinos have a long history with refugees from around the world, and we take a look at the 10 times the Philippines became an asylum for the stateless in the 20th and 21st century, as recorded by the UNHCR.

1| 1923 – White Russians Flee Socialist Russia

Eight hundred White Russians, referring to their political color and not the color of their skin, fled Russia at the end of World War I to escape persecution at the hands of the Red Russians who supported the bloody Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

These 800 men, women, and children sailed from Vladivostok City, Russia’s biggest eastern port that’s just a stone’s throw away from Korea and Japan. A total of almost 8,000 Russians departed from Vladivostok, splitting into smaller groups headed for different parts of Asia. The 800 who arrived in the then U.S.-ruled Philippines went on to settle in the U.S., Australia, and parts of the Philippines, including the 250 who decided to plant their roots in Mindanao.


2| 1930s – Jews Escape Nazi Germany

Like the White Russians, European Jews were forced to flee because of a world war. This time, it was World War II, the war that caused the infamous Holocaust, which saw the systematic genocide of over six million Jews by Nazi Germany.

Around 1,200 fled to the Philippines thanks to President Manuel Quezon’s open-door policy, which later welcomed 30,000 more refugees. Quezon even offered his own land in Marikina to the refugees. Quezon’s actions later earned him a monument halfway across the world in Tel Aviv, Israel, where his statue stands in honor of the man who helped the Jews in their time of need.

3| 1939 – Spanish Enter Exile After Civil War

The tides turned in 1939 when the Philippines’ former colonizer, Spain, entered a civil war, causing thousands to seek sanctuary outside the country. One country they turned to was none other than the Philippines, its former colony that was subjugated to Spanish rule for over 300 years.

Despite its tumultuous history with Spain, the Philippines remained neutral during its civil war. And when Spanish dictator Francisco Franco rose to power, 500,000 Spanish Republicans fled the country to France, North Africa, and even its former colonies: Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines.

4| 1940 – Chinese Run from Communist Rule

In the 40s, the Philippines witnessed an influx of Chinese mainland immigrants who chose to leave the communist rule of the People’s Republic of China. A civil war had just broken out, and many did not welcome the new regime. Over 30,000 Chinese immigrated to the Philippines, creating the foundations of the Filipino-Chinese community we know today.

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Many Chinese immigrants married into Filipino families, and when the Philippines finally gained independence from the U.S., the Chinese immigrants and their children were finally naturalized as Filipinos.

5| 1947 – The Second Wave of Russians Arrive

Like the Chinese immigrants before them, the White Russians of Shanghai sought to leave the country when it went under communist rule. Of all the nations they appealed to, only the Philippines, fresh from a World War that witnessed its destruction at the hands of the Japanese, answered their call.

Known as the “Tiempo Ruso” or Time of the Russians, some 6,000 White Russians were settled in Tubabao Island in East Samar for about four years. During that time, the refugees got a taste of island life and taught locals piano and ballet before they departed for Australia, U.S., Brazil, Dominican Republic, France, and Belgium. The refugees were a diverse group who hailed from the Soviet Union: Russians, Armenians, Estonians, Germans and Austrians, Turko Tatars, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Czechs and Yugoslavs, Polish, Latvians, and Hungarians.

6| 1975 to 1992 – Vietnamese “Boat People” Sail for the Philippine Sea

Another war pushed refugees to find sanctuary in the Philippines: the Vietnam War. When Saigon fell, those from South Vietnam who supported the Americans decided to leave behind their country fearing retribution for the choices they made in the war. These “boat people” drifted aimlessly at sea, relying on the current to decide their course. Some of these boats landed in Luzon, as far north as Bataan where they were rescued by fishermen.


Around 2,700 refugees settled temporarily in Palawan as farmers or fishermen. As they weren’t allowed to leave the camp, some refugees asked to relocate to other countries, but still, many chose to stay behind with their families or new Filipino spouses. Palawan still hosts Viet Ville, a tourist site that pays homage to the Vietnamese who found refuge in the Philippines.

7| 1979 – Iranians Flee Revolution

Trouble in the Middle East exploded when the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah installed a new Ayatollah. At the time, thousands of Iranians were studying and working in Manila, and when news broke of the revolution, many sought refuge in the Philippines in fear of the new government.

Even among the refugees, there was tension between those who supported the overthrown monarchy and the new republic. While some refugees chose to leave, others opted stay permanently, shedding their refugee status to become full-fledged Filipinos.  

8| 1980 to 1994 – Southeast Asians Evade Political Crises

In Southeast Asia as the time, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were experiencing regime changes and political crises that encouraged thousands to seek more prosperous lands. They found that in the Philippines.

Around a whopping 400,000 Southeast Asians from these countries sailed to the Philippines where they were settled in the refugee centers in Bataan, which would be just a short stop during their long journey of migration. These refugees eventually relocated in countries like the U.S., Canada, France, and Australia.

9| East Timorese Seek Refuge in the Philippines

During East Timor’s struggle for independence from Indonesia, around 600 refugees sought asylum in the Philippines. They were welcomed by Filipinos, particularly the Catholic Church, which raised $200,000 for their support.


Eventually, the refugees were repatriated back to East Timor when their country’s troubles settled down.

10| Philippines Extends Arms to Persecuted Rohingya

When hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya were subjected to religious persecution and genocide in Myanmar, president Rodrigo Duterte offered to grant the Rohingya refuge and even citizenship. Myanmar criticized the response as it refuses to consider its actions to the Rohingya as a genocide.

The offer still stands as the Catholic-dominant Philippines is also home to millions of Muslims, particularly in Mindanao, where majority of the Islamic population resides.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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