There is a difference between protecting Filipinos so that they won’t fall victim to human trafficking, and subjecting them to indignities as they go through immigration at the airport.
The Bureau of Immigration (BI) is under fire for its line of questioning of departing passengers that bordered on the absurd after Cham Tanteras, a traveler from Siargao, shared her experience in a now-viral TikTok video. Tanteras, who was flying to Israel, said the questions included whether her parents were separated, and if she brought her graduation yearbook to prove that she had indeed graduated — 10 years ago. Her experience resonated with other Filipino travelers who shared on the social media platform similar encounters at immigration. One woman, who was traveling with her husband, recounted how she was asked to show her wedding photo, as well as details of their nuptials held during the pandemic lockdown.
There is no excuse for unnecessary, even invasive questions, that seem irrelevant as far as travelers are concerned. The BI, in response to Tanteras’ complaint, apologized but asked for “consideration and understanding as the agency is constrained to implement strict measures to assess departing passengers.” Indeed, immigration officers are tasked to look for red flags and scrutinize details such as the traveler’s length of stay and accommodation arrangements, employment status in the Philippines, family background, and travel history to intercept cases of illegal recruitment or human trafficking.
Previously, on March 13, President Marcos ordered concerned government agencies to step up the fight against human trafficking as it could compromise the country’s economy and national security. He directed the Presidential Communications Office to assist the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking in launching a communication campaign on the dangers posed by traffickers who exploit the economic weaknesses of vulnerable groups, especially women and children.
To be fair, the majority of outbound travelers do not encounter problems at immigration. The BI, in its annual report, said there were 3.97 million Filipinos who left the country last year, a more than 200-percent jump from the 1.32 million departing Filipino travelers in 2021, indicating a surge in travel after the two-year COVID-19 lockdown. But there were also 50,509 “deferred departures” among Filipino travelers in 2022. The top reason cited, which applied to 26,311 cases, was the traveler’s failure to submit the required travel documents.
How many Filipinos have anxiously stood before immigration counters, fearing that they may not have all the necessary proof to convince the bureau that their trip is legitimate as indicated by their supporting documents? Yet, despite the rigorous immigration check, a number of Filipinos posing as tourists are able to leave the country and end up working illegally overseas. The task of rescuing and bringing them back home then falls on the government.
Early this month, the government repatriated a female victim who posed as a tourist to Thailand but was actually recruited to work supposedly in a call center there. Instead, she was trafficked to Myanmar where she was forced to work at an online betting outfit. Since September last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs has helped repatriate over 200 human trafficking victims, many of them from neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
In Tanteras’ case, she was “offloaded,” or missed her flight, because of the lengthy questioning by the immigration officer who, according to the BI, has been transferred to another office pending its investigation of the incident. The apology, sanction on the erring BI officer, and the promised investigation notwithstanding, the harm has been done, with the offloaded passenger forced to buy a new ticket that, she said, cost her P27,000. The BI investigation however should reveal if the officer’s line of questioning was somehow prompted by a red flag on the traveler’s part, as an anti-trafficking advocate noted in an article published on the news website Republic Asia. If so, can the bureau come up with a more precise and refined process of pinpointing inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and insufficient information in travel documents without subjecting travelers to the trauma and expense of being offloaded?
The BI, under Republic Act No. 10364 or the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, is mandated to “strictly administer and enforce immigration and alien administration laws.” Its border control officers serve as the country’s last line of defense against human trafficking, a problem rooted in poverty and unemployment that the government must address. On the other hand, as the bureau also reminded its officers, these immigration inspections, no matter how tedious, must be conducted “professionally, and in an efficient manner.”
The freedom to travel is a constitutional right, but travelers must do their part to ensure that their documents are in order and that they have exercised due diligence and caution to make sure that their trip is legitimate and aboveboard. Failure to do so not only imperils them personally, but may also expose fellow travelers to more rigorous and absurdly stringent immigration procedures as the BI endeavors to do a better job.
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