A week ago, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) detained Canadian student Kim Chatillon-Meunier as she was about to leave the country. Meunier had been placed on the BI’s “watch list” because she was seen at a protest rally on the day President Aquino delivered his fourth State of the Nation Address, in July. Last Friday, the BI placed her in the bureau’s detention facility in Camp Bagong Diwa, and allowed her to leave for Canada, via Hong Kong, only on Sunday night. The one word to describe the BI’s actions? Outrageous.
Meunier is not the only visitor to suffer from the BI’s heavy-handed treatment of foreign protesters. A young Dutch activist, Thomas van Beersum, was also at the anti-Sona protests. He made the mistake of berating an antiriot policeman face to face; police officer Joselito Sevilla broke into tears but stood his ground. A photograph of the encounter went viral, and Beersum was roundly (and in our view correctly) criticized.
But criticism is one thing; detention, deportation or classification as an “undesirable alien” is another. Beersum was stopped at the airport on Aug. 6, detained and then allowed to leave the country only on the night of Aug. 7. He has been banned from reentering the Philippines.
The bureau’s OIC Commissioner Siegfred Mison defended the bureau’s actions on Beersum last month, and defended the steps taken against Meunier early this week. “As we have repeatedly stated, foreigners have no business joining these rallies as the act amounts to violating the conditions of their stay as tourists,” he said on Monday.
This is wrong, on so many levels. Let us highlight three ways in which Mison and the BI he leads are mistaken.
First, the policy is an unthinking resort to legalism. The charge leveled against foreign activists like Beersum and foreign observers like Meunier can be summarized in a simple phrase: partisan political activity. But the country’s statute books and jurisprudence are clear on the use of that phrase; it refers to election-related activity. Indeed, just last May, the immigration commissioner at the time issued a warning against foreigners who might engage in exactly that kind of partisan political activity: working for political parties, making contributions to candidates, and the like.
The protests that Beersum joined and Meunier observed cannot reasonably be classified as election-related activity. The bureau’s expansive definition of partisanship, then, is doubly dangerous; it has no sufficient legal warrant, and it encroaches on universal civil liberties.
Second, the policy is reflex chauvinism of the worst kind. We’ve welcomed foreign participation in rallies and demonstrations in other parts of the world concerning Philippine issues. (For instance, anti-Marcos protests in front of the White House in the 1980s, or demonstrations of support for Filipino veterans before the US Congress.) Why shouldn’t foreigners join protest rallies here in the country, whether against the present administration or the pork barrel system or, indeed, any other nonelection-related issue? The Philippines is an open and democratic member of the international community—what are Mison and the BI afraid of?
Third, the policy is bureaucratic overkill. It refuses to make necessary and important distinctions; joining a protest rally is not the same as fomenting unrest, but the BI sees no difference between the two.
We obviously do not mean that there is no such thing as a dangerous visitor, who must be deported posthaste or banned from entry, or indeed arrested and tried when the circumstances call for it. But joining a protest rally should not qualify as a danger; exercising one’s rights to say what one wants to say about the Philippines should not be seen as a risk.
The policy, in sum, is counterdemocratic. Worse, it paints a portrait of the Philippines as a place where visitors lose their rights to free expression or to assembly simply because they are visiting. What are we, North Korea?
It is the BI’s policy that is undesirable.
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