Filipinos Trapped in Their Own Country

A Filipina grandmother who is currently living in Thailand recently told a friend she hasn’t visited her home country in years, and that in fact she is afraid to because despite fact that she has a valid passport, she might not be allowed back out by arbitrary decisions of officials of the Immigration department.

That isn’t as farfetched. Another woman who had spent several years working in Spain, flew back to visit her family in Bataan before flying on to Hong Kong. When she returned to Manila to fly out, immigration authorities stopped her for no discernible reason. It took three weeks and a blizzard of paperwork justifying her trip – okayed by Hong Kong – on a regular passport rather than one for domestic helpers.

These stories happen often enough to arouse genuine concerns among overseas Filipinos and often lead to journeys being aborted, delayed or interrupted by demands of officials to produce proof of intent when exiting the country.

The immigration practices of what is supposed to be a free, law-governed nation, a liberal if chaotic democracy. It also has a government which claims to be tackling the official corruption that is widely acknowledged to be a key reason why The Philippines has fallen behind most of the rest of Southeast Asia over the past 50 years.

If you want to see why the Philippines is not as free and democratic as it would like the world to believe, and also why official corruption is so rampant, take a look at the powers that the Bureau of Immigration gives to itself.

Right to travel is a fundamental of any free society. Adults of sound mind and not subject to criminal proceedings or court order are supposed entitled to a passport which in principle enables them to leave if they have a ticket to another country where they have right of entry.

But read on. Here are the BOI further demands even after citizens have gone through the process of obtaining a passport, which itself requires various documents.

What are the requirements for a Filipino citizen to travel abroad?

  1. At a minimum, a traveler intending to go abroad shall be required to present a passport valid for at least six (6) months, visa when required and a round trip ticket during the primary inspection.

What are the instances when additional requirements shall be required?

Pursuant to the “Guidelines on Departure Formalities for International-Bound Passengers in All Airports and Seaports in the Country”, a traveler will be subjected to a secondary inspection, when deemed necessary, for the purpose of protecting vulnerable victims of human trafficking, illegal recruitment and other related offenses. As such, Immigration Officers (IOs) are allowed to propound clarificatory questions relating to any documents presented or the purpose of travel. Based on answers provided, the traveler will be given a list of additional requirements to support his alleged purpose of travel.

The circumstances that may be assessed and the basis of additional supporting documents may include, but not limited to the following:

  • Age

  • Educational Attainment

  • Financial capability to travel

If not financially capable to travel, an authenticated Affidavit of Support or Letter of Invitation, indicating therein the relationship within the 4th civil degree of consanguinity or affinity, together with the supporting documents may be entertained; and

Affidavit of Undertaking/Guaranty may likewise be entertained.

The determination of the sufficiency of travel documents in relation to the purpose of travel rest upon the IO who will be conducting the primary and secondary inspection based on the totality of circumstances and statements/declarations of the passenger.

This is reminiscent of dictatorships from which people are in theory free to travel but in who in practice are often prevented by Orwellian bureaucratic procedures which put arbitrary power into the hands of officials.

It is also, naturally, a charter for corruption. Any such widely drawn powers would be even in the cleanest societies. To imagine that the immigration bureau is significantly cleaner than its fellow guardian of Philippine borders, the Customs Department, would be a leap of faith.

Yet some cleaning of the BOI would be much simpler than Customs: abolish such constraints on adult Filipino nationals. In any other nation such restrictions are normally found in rules relating to entry by foreigners. But the Philippines turned this upside down to apply it to its own people to strengthen the extortion power of officials and their political patrons.

It is insulting to the average citizen, who has already gone through what in the Philippines is a laborious process to acquire a passport, by creating conditions which are undemocratic.

  1. Age. -- No specific age is stated so, for example, adults of 35 years can be deemed unable to travel

  2. Educational attainment. Again, unstated, subject to arbitrary decision and based on elitist arrogance whereby rights are not based on citizenship but class.

  3. Financial capability to travel -- This should only be the concern of the country of destination.

Travellers must come armed with documents on these topics in the hope of being allowed out of their country, yet still face demands for unspecified additional information about their ”alleged” purpose of travel. (Note the use of “alleged” which suggests the BOI citizens are as devious as the BOI itself).

The final insult to citizens and bedrock of corruption is that the “determination of the sufficiency” of documents and explanations rests entirely with the Immigration Officer conducting the interrogations. It is hard to imagine a power more susceptible to corruption.

This whole apparatus of bureaucratic power is justified on grounds of combating people-smuggling and illegal recruitment. But that is just a charade. Its actual purpose is to give officials arbitrary power to deprive individuals of their rights and extort money from those who do not meet Immigration Officers’ arbitrary rule making.

This is not just theoretical. Pinoy communities overseas are full of stories of those who have returned to visit and then found themselves unable to leave without weeks of form filing, letter writing and expenditure. As a result many more decline to take the risk and stay away, unable to meet with children and grandchildren who, though adults, themselves may be prevented from outbound travel by the same outrageous rules.

In short the rules and procedures are one of the more spectacular examples of why the Philippines remains so ill-governed despite the promises of the Aquino administration.