HomeThe Journal of Historyvol. 65 no. 1 (2019)

Country of Transit: The White Russian Refugee Camp in Tubabao Island, Guiuan, Samar, Philippines (1949-1951)

Kinna Mae G. Kwan



In 1949, the Philippines served as an emergency transit point for approximately 5,500 anti-communist refugees escaping persecution in China, which was their Country of First Asylum following a massive exodus out of Russia during the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1922. As a Country of Transit, the Philippine Government, together with the International Refugee Organization (IRO) – the predecessor of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – set up the United Nations Evacuation Center in Tubabao Island (Guiuan, Samar) to operate as an emergency shelter for this vulnerable group seeking permanent admission to countries like Australia and the United States. From 1949 to 1951, Guiuan was home to thousands of refugees, mainly from countries and territories of the former Russian empire, collectively known as “White Russians.” This paper discusses the history of the UN Evacuation Center in Guiuan, and frames it in the context of national history through a discussion of the following areas: 1) the situation of the country in the late 1940s; 2) the international humanitarian experiences of the nation pre and post-Tubabao refugee camp; and 3) the national and international significance of this episode. Exuding the famed hospitality of the Filipino, the White Russians in Tubabao comprised the fifth of nine waves of refugees assisted by the Philippines since the 1920s. This episode is also the country’s first international humanitarian assistance as a New Republic. With the entire East threatened by the onrushing tide of Communism, the Philippines, the most strategic crossroads linking the West and the East, remains the one safe, attractive home for free men in our part of the world, a haven for the masses of humanity fleeing from that flood. President Elpidio R. Quirino, First State of the Nation Address, January 24, 1949 The Philippines has a long history of accepting and assisting refugees seeking asylum. The Philippines has welcomed nine identified waves of refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced persons, namely: White Russians fleeing the Red Army during the 1920 Russian Civil War (1923); Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution (1934-1940); Spanish Republicans escaping the Spanish Civil War (1939); refugees from China fleeing from the Imperial Japanese forces (1940); White Russians escaping from the Chinese Communist army (1949-1953); Vietnamese who fled their country after the end of Vietnam War (1975-1992), and Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge killing fields (1975); Iranians in the Philippines who could not go back to their home country due to the change of regime resulting from the Iranian Revolution (1979); Indo-Chinese refugees in transit through the Philippines due to change in regime in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (1980-1989); and East Timorese escaping the violent situation when they struggled for independence from Indonesia (2000).3 Given its refugee experience, the Philippines is known as one of the friendliest countries to refugees in Asia. This paper will focus on the fifth wave, which also forms an interesting history in one of the greatest diasporas of the 20th century as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution. This wave was considered as the Philippines’ first experience in international humanitarian assistance as a newly independent nation, and the first time that our country officially and formally served as a refugee Country of Transit.