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The Philippines is the First Nation to Welcome Sea-Stranded Migrants

Nearly 8,000 refugees from Burma and Bangladesh will be taken in after struggling to survive on “floating coffins.”

The approximate location of the refugee boats, termed "floating coffins" by the UN. Image from the International Organization on Migration.

The government of Manila was the first to agree to take in 8,000 refugees, including Rohingya Muslims from Burma and displaced people from Bangladesh, who had been stranded on the seas on boats. The refugees, who are escaping persecution and poverty in their home countries, are presumed to be near the Andaman Sea on what the UN has termed “floating coffins.” Other countries in direct vicinity of the boats, like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, have rejected them, and they have been floating perilously on the waters for more than a week.

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An Unlikely Bureaucratic Tool for Ethnic Cleansing

Burma used a subtle technique to further persecute its Rohingya Muslim population and effectively erase the maligned minority from its borders.

"Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State (8280610831)" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Flickr. Licensed under OGL via Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since Burma’s military elite began a slow and piecemeal, but highly publicized, march back towards civilian rule in 2010, the former pariah state has received a fair amount of praise from around the world. Diplomats, world leaders, and intellectual luminaries have applauded what they see as efforts to correct old lies, build stronger state institutions, and even put the brakes on their most egregiously violent and enduring local ethnic conflicts.

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At this point, the debate over immigration in the United States is less a conversation than an interminable morass. We hear the same arguments time and again: We can’t grant illegal immigrants citizenship because they’ve broken the law by coming here. If we do, we’re rewarding criminals, and so on.

I’m not going to take on that or any other anti-amnesty argument here; experts and legal scholars are better equipped to do battle in that arena. Instead, I’m just going to tell a story about a friend of mine. And no, he’s not an illegal immigrant. But I’m beginning to wonder if it might be in his best interests to become one.

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Samy doesn't live near the Thai capital of Bangkok, but his fate rests largely on the government that resides there-and that government has recently been plunged into utter chaos. Dozens have been killed and hundreds injured in the past weeks, as negotiations between political factions failed and the army resorted to force to quell a long-standing protest.

So before we delve deeper into one Canadian's plan to save Samy, it makes sense to look at the current turmoil in Thailand, through Samy's eyes. After all, he lives in Thailand, and his prospects of finding a new home are intimately bound to the Thai government's decision-making power. And a state caught in the midst of violent crisis tends not to put refugee affairs on the top of the agenda. Yet the immediate impact on Samy has been so great, not just because the clash disrupted government operations, but because it's something he's seen before.

Samy tells me that what's happening in Thailand reminds him of life in Burma: He's again seeing a military-backed, authoritarian leadership use military might to crush protesters calling for democracy. The military junta in Burma has routinely used violence to shatter pro-democracy movements for the last two decades.

"In Burma, it's the same thing: The army has been killing people, scaring people. And when I got here, I thought this country was freedom, and that people had a power," he says. "But they're killing people."

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