By: Cristina Eloisa Baclig – Content Researcher Writer/INQUIRER.net /August 12, 2021
MANILA, Philippines—Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was not exaggerating when he described the ongoing repatriation of Filipinos from various countries as the biggest in Philippine history.
The last mass repatriation of this magnitude took place in 1991 when 20,000 to 30,000 Filipinos were brought home from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries during the first Gulf War.
The numbers are more than 10 times higher in the ongoing mass repatriation of Filipinos largely because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s the biggest repatriation ever in our history, possibly the biggest repatriation anywhere, of any country, in the world,” said Locsin on Twitter.
Just last Wednesday (Aug. 11), three chartered flights brought home more than 1,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), mostly from the Middle East, and Filipinos living overseas.
Since 2020, as COVID-19 swept through the world, more than 1 million Filipinos had already been sent home for various reasons, but mainly because of the pandemic.
The Philippine government believes more Filipinos are stranded abroad and awaiting repatriation flights.
Thousands back home
In February 2020, as the world grappled with the pandemic, the Philippine government began the repatriation of thousands of Filipinos that officials classified as either OFWs or overseas Filipinos.
By the end of 2020, the Philippines saw an unprecedented number of repatriation—791,623 Filipinos, according to a study of International Organization for Migration (IOM) United Nations Migration.
Citing figures from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), IOM said in a report that at least 481,305 repatriated Filipinos had land-based jobs abroad. At least 308,332 had been working on ships. At least 1,986 were brought home from Sabah.
The IOM report said the DFA brought back 327,511 OFWs who had land-based jobs which is 71 percent of total repatriation. At least 95,974 were those who had jobs in 150 cruise ships, oil tankers and other cargo vessels.
According to DFA data, as of Aug. 7, a total of 408,911 Filipinos have been sent home during the pandemic. Of these, at least 105,607 had been working on ships and 303,304 were land-based.
According to data from Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), a total of 502,581 OFWs returned to the Philippines either after losing their jobs or for fear of getting stranded by the pandemic or both.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gave higher estimates of the reverse diaspora. He said as of June 28, more than 1 million Filipinos had been repatriated or had returned to the Philippines since the pandemic struck.
As of June 28, Lorenzana said a total of 1,237,186 overseas Filipinos have been repatriated—1,005,885 OFWs and 231,301 Filipino residents of foreign countries.
Of the OFWs, 591,956 are land-based and 413,929 are sea-based.
A DFA official said the department was expecting at least 7,000 more stranded Filipinos to be brought home in August.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the primary reasons most Filipinos are coming home.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified trafficking dangers, loss of jobs, growing poverty, involuntary servitude of seafarers because of the delay of the deployment of their replacements, illegal recruiters taking advantage of the economic needs of the unemployed,” said Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, who is also the undersecretary in charge of IACAT, at an online press conference last month.
According to a survey by IOM, the return of at least 8,332 OFWs by the end of 2020 was mostly directly related to the pandemic—67 percent.
About a third—30 percent—of those who went home as a direct impact of COVID-19 said their work contracts had expired and not renewed because of the pandemic. At least 16 percent were simply told by employers to “leave the country” where they work also because of the pandemic.
The IOM report said at least 13 percent of those who came home as a direct result of the pandemic could not find work or have lost their jobs. At least 7 percent was worried about their families in the Philippines because of the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 global pandemic, [has] put Filipinos living overseas in a precarious situation, facing unprecedented challenges and leaving many extremely vulnerable,” said the IOM in its study.
“When businesses started to shut down because of the worldwide mobility restrictions, many OFWs found themselves stranded, unemployed and at risk of COVID-19,” the UN agency said.
As of Aug. 9, DFA recorded a total of 21,731 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Filipinos abroad, 3,824 of which were verified by the Department of Health-International Health Regulations (DOH-IHR).
At least 7,849 overseas Filipinos are still undergoing treatment, 12,558 had recovered and had been discharged while 1,325 Filipinos had died of the disease.
Most confirmed cases, according to DFA, were in the Middle East and Africa with 12,332 cases.
At least 4,818 Filipinos in Asia Pacific countries had been infected.
Cases of COVID-19 among Filipinos in Europe reached 3,566 while 1,015 Filipinos in America got sick.
Heroes are victims, too
Before the pandemic OFWs, who had been hailed as the Philippines’ modern day heroes, had already been enduring harrowing conditions abroad.
Those flown home prior to the pandemic were those who had been either maltreated, physically or mentally abused by their employers while some opted to leave their jobs due to poor working conditions or employment contract violations.
According to findings in a study by Alcestis “Thetis” Abrera Mangahas, former deputy regional director of International Organization (ILO) for Asia Pacific, OFWs are vulnerable to risks and predation even before they leave the Philippines.
Among the pre-employment or pre-deployment struggles that OFWs go through, according to a survey conducted as part of the study, are:
- High costs of recruitment.
- Illegal recruitment, which can be caused by unlicensed agencies or prohibited practices by licensed agencies.
- Contract and visa deception, which are often linked with lack of information on contract terms and conditions and misuse of visa provisions.
Mangahas also detailed in her study the eight types of challenges that add to the struggles of OFWs:
- Contract violation
- Maltreatment or mistreatment
- Immigration and document-related problems
- Contract substitution
- Health or medical problems
- Personal issues
- Sexual abuse that included harassment and rape
Citing data from Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs), Sen. Joel Villanueva, chair of the Senate labor committee, raised concern at a hearing last March over the plight of at least 4,302 Filipino workers who had been abused in 2020 in the Middle East.
At least 593 cases of maltreatment of OFWs had been recorded in Asia while 86 were reported in Europe and the Americas.
Some of the OFWs and overseas Filipinos, who had been repatriated, had also been victims of the kafala system prevailing in many Middle Eastern countries.
Under the kafala system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor, or kafeel, during the contract period.
The migrant worker cannot enter a country, seek other jobs or leave a country without explicit, written permission from the kafeel,
The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the kafeel, who is the source of abuse.
In his last State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte told governments of Middle Eastern countries to dismantle the kafala system which the President described as a form of modern slavery.
Early in 2020, as thousands of Filipinos abroad began to pack up and fly back home, the World Bank predicted a 13 percent annual remittance decline.
However, according to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the country registered only a 0.8 percent annual remittance decline in 2020.
From $33.47 billion in 2019, the full-year 2020 personal remittances from OFWs dropped to $33.19.
The remittances accounted for 9.2 percent of the Philippines’ 2020 gross domestic product (GDP) and 8.5 percent of the gross national income (GNP).
Citing estimates from the World Bank Bilateral Matrix, the IOM said remittances from the United States saw an increase from January to September 2020, accounting for at least 40 percent of total remittances in the Philippines.
Cash remittances from OFWs continued to pick up as the BSP recorded a 4.9 percent increase to $2.514 billion in March 2021 from $2.397 billion in the same period in 2020.
The BSP noted a 5 percent increase in remittances from land-based workers with $1.948 billion this March, while those from sea-based workers grew by 4.5 percent to $566 million.
According to the World Bank, low remittance fees helped Filipinos overseas to keep on sending remittances despite the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Uncertainty, however, looms in the horizon for repatriated OFWs as they come home. The biggest question is what jobs are there for them in the Philippines?
According to OWWA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac, the agency offers a repatriation grant to displaced OFWs amounting to P20,000.
In a separate Senate hearing in 2020, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told senators that the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has long-term programs for the displaced OFWs.
These included the Special Program for the Employment of Students (SPES), an employment recovery program, a reintegration program which entitles grantees a P10,000-financial assistance, livelihood assistance, and education and scholarship programs for their children.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said it assists distressed OFWs and their families by offering livelihood assistance, in coordination with the other programs of the agency like the Sustainable Livelihood Program (SLP) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation (AICS).
In June 2021, the DSWD in Central Visayas reported that at least 326 OFWs who had been repatriated have received assistance from the agency.
The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) urged returning OFWs to take up online courses in agriculture.
“It became more difficult to earn this pandemic because many Filipinos have lost their jobs and livelihood especially in the tourism sector,” said Isidro Lapeña, TESDA director general, in a statement last February.
“However, we can also take the courses under the agriculture sector so we can ensure that more of us will know how to produce our own food for our families and loved ones,” he added.
According to TESDA, of the total 1,238,522 who registered for online courses at the end of 2020, 86,100 were OFWs and their dependents.
Data by IOM showed that at least 52 percent of the 8,332 OFWs sent back home in 2020 wanted skills upgrade. At least 93 percent of them were willing to be trained, IOM said.
At least 14 percent of the repatriated OFWs prefer certificate courses while 11 percent want short courses.
At least 45 percent of the repatriated OFWs want to start businesses. At least 35 percent of these wanted to venture in service and sales, 27 percent in food and 14 percent in agriculture, forestry and fishery.
The IOM report said those preferring to venture into food wanted to cook or bake at home, sell products online, acquire food franchise or invest in a small food outlet or restaurant.
Some wanted to set up small retail stores or sell assorted goods like clothes and beauty products, the IOM report said.
But the striking element is that only 27 percent reported having capital to start businesses.
At least 69 percent said there’s no means to acquire capital and 4 percent said the money they had was insufficient.
The IOM report said at least 50 percent of those who said they have no capital would not know how to obtain seed money with more women OFWs saying this.
Recently, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute (Ople Center) said through its partnership with Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), 596 exploited domestic workers mostly from the Middle East were able to get livelihood training and transition to entrepreneurship.
Partnership with businesses, like San Miguel Corp, also helped 581 domestic workers start their own businesses.
Still, despite these livelihood assistance programs, 48 percent of the repatriated OFWs said they plan to return abroad in the future. Only 34 percent said they want to remain in the Philippines.