MANILA - While it is regarded as one of the Philippines' best assets, the hospitality of its people is also being blamed by authorities as key factor in why outlaws from other countries often hide out in the Philippines.
"I will still say that the Philippines will be one of those countries where fugitives would really prefer to hide simply because we are very welcoming, we are friendly to foreigners," Philippine immigration chief Siegfred Mison told foreign correspondents in the Philippines on Wednesday.
"Not knowing that they are fugitives, we welcome them with our standard brand of hospitality. So, it can be a valid reason why they would want to come here to hide," he added.
Mison does not know how many fugitives from other countries could be present in the Philippines, but he said that of the 40,000 persons listed in the agency's database of derogatory information, more than half are foreign nationals.
"Some are in that database because of existing arrest warrants or pending deportation cases," Mison said. A statement by the immigration bureau in January said 81 foreign fugitives were nabbed in the country in 2013, and 49 in 2012.
He said most of those were involved in forgery, extortion, cybercrime, pornography or sexual conduct, and economic crimes. Topping the list in 2013 were 34 South Koreans followed by 23 Chinese, 19 Americans, three Japanese and two Germans.
For this year, the agency reported apprehending, so far, a U.S. national wanted in the United States in a sexual assault case, a German who had a standing arrest warrant for serious physical injury charges, and a Japanese wanted in Japan for theft, counterfeiting documents and fraud, among others.
The U.S. person had been a fugitive for 10 years, while the Japanese had been hiding in the Philippines for 29 years. The agency also initiated deportation charges against an Australian who was propagating jihad through social media while in the country and a Canadian Islamic teacher who, Mison said, "is supposed to be inciting and recruiting persons to conduct terrorist activities."
He said there are also around 140 foreign nationals being held at the bureau's holding facility due to pending criminal cases in the Philippines, among them five Japanese and three Germans.
Mison said the immigration bureau is taking steps to prevent the entry of foreign fugitives, saying, "From time to time, we've been corresponding with certain consulates and embassies to ask for information in advance."
"Once we know it, we will put that in our database. And if that person is encountered at our port of entry, we will no longer allow them to enter the country," he said, adding the agency recently has been encoding around 100 arrest warrants every day, especially those issued by local courts.
In June, the bureau said it also struck an agreement with the International Criminal Police Organization, Interpol, with the same objective.
Mison said he has also been pushing for two years for the adoption of an interagency border security program to secure the country's southern backdoor where some unregistered foreign nationals arrive and where some Filipinos wanted by authorities leave.
While he acknowledged the possibility that foreign fugitives could also be taking advantage of the country's visa-free entry policy that allows nationals of 157 country to come to the Philippines without an entry visa and stay for 30 days, he said there is "no direct data leading to such conclusion."
"Despite our openness, 'bad guys' comprise only 1 percent of the foreign national population. So, there are more 'good guys' coming in as a result of the visa-free privilege," immigration spokesman Elaine Tan said.
The Philippines, which hopes to boost its tourism in the coming years, received more than 2.4 million international tourists, mainly from South Korea and the United States, from January to June this year, and more than 4.6 million for all of 2013.