Public Lives

Migration as a way of life

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In a previous column, I wrote of the ease with which my 3-year-old granddaughter Jacinta can point out the exact location on a globe of the world’s most obscure nations. The other night, the little girl surprised us again by her uncanny ability to name the other countries that share a boundary with a particular country. No doubt she has a strong photographic memory.  But I wonder if this familiarity with nations as constituting one cognitively accessible world is not the same mindset that has induced many Filipinos to pursue a life of migration.

Migration studies report that more than 10 million Filipinos, roughly 10 percent of our population, today live and work in about 193 countries. These figures have prompted analysts to speak of a Filipino diaspora. The term is a derivative of the Greek word “sporas,” meaning “scattered like seeds.”

We are a seafaring people and long-distance travel is not unknown to us. We have had waves of Filipino migration to Hawaii, Guam, and the rest of the United States, as a byproduct of our colonial ties with America. But, for a long time, the rest of the world was unmarked space for us. Indeed, throughout its colonial past, the Philippines had been more of a receiving than a sending country, attracting over the centuries migrants from China, Japan, India, and from as far as Lebanon.

Things radically changed in the early ’70s, when the martial law regime began to organize the deployment of Filipino workers and professionals to countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This move was intended to hit two birds with one stone: first to ensure a steady supply of oil from the oil-rich countries that would welcome Filipino workers, and second, to ease the unemployment problem at home. Ferdinand Marcos defended this policy as a temporary solution aimed at ensuring that the country obtained its oil requirements at a time when the world’s oil market was unstable.

I am sure that neither Marcos nor Blas Ople, his labor minister at that time, knew exactly what force they had unleashed by this single act. From the first batch of schoolteachers recruited to teach in Nigeria and the hundreds of construction workers sent to Libya around 1973-74, the Filipino diaspora has grown into millions in the last four decades. The supply continues to outstrip the demand, and so instead of paying for travel, labor recruiters today collect excessive placement fees and travel expenses from applicants desperately seeking work abroad. Still, the outflow shows no sign of weakening. The country continues to deploy a little less than 4,000 overseas Filipino workers per day on the average.

An entire bureaucracy has risen just to regulate the billion-dollar labor export industry. Instead of trade and military attachés, our embassies and consulates abroad now have more need for counselors and lawyers to attend to the varied problems that Filipino migrant workers routinely encounter in foreign lands. In the meantime, OFW remittances, now approaching $2 billion a month, singularly fuel a consumption-driven economy that feels no pressure to develop its own productive capability.

I have previously written of the positive aspects of the Filipino migrant experience, not the least of which is the impact it creates on the migrants’ world view. They see how modern and accountable governments take pains to respond to the needs of their citizens. They watch in awe when the inhabitants of these societies, conscious of their civic responsibility to work for the common good, take initiatives to improve their communities rather than wait for their governments to act. Naturally, they begin to ask what it would take for Filipinos to attain the same level of solidarity and political maturity. When they come home or read about happenings at home, they recoil at the incompetence and the privileges of the few who rule us. They become the most impatient constituents of modernity.

But there is a big downside to the culture of migration we have unwittingly nurtured in our society. It encourages people, especially the young, to think of personal advancement as something to be pursued separately from the progress of their own society. It makes it easy for them to turn their back on their communities, and sometimes even on their own families, in the vain hope of finding a better life abroad. It fosters the illusion that good societies are places to be found rather than painstakingly built by the collective effort of their citizens.

I know of no other country in the world that is quite like ours—where the government effectively functions as a placement agency facilitating the deployment of its own people for work abroad. I imagine that the policy of labor export is not only ultimately self-defeating for any nation, it must also be a source of shame.

Our kind of organized migration is vastly different from that pursued by young people elsewhere, who might spend time traveling, studying, or living in other cultures in order to gain international experience. They do not stay abroad out of desperation or necessity.  They don’t leave young children behind. Most of them come back to start families and build their careers hand in hand with the development of their societies.

Perhaps Jacinta will one day be a footloose wanderer; but so long as she can tell where her country is on the map even when, falling asleep, her eyes are half-open, I am confident she will always find her way home.

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