The Filipino right to travel
Roxas City, Capiz—It is bad enough that many countries around the world—through strict visa regimes and discriminatory border controls—are restricting our right to travel (See “Visas, privilege, and inequality,” 10/28/22). But what makes it worse is that our own country is also holding us back.
This is the message we get from the recent reports of Filipinos being intensively interrogated by our own immigration officers—to the point of being asked to show one’s yearbook. Regardless of how common such an incident is, its virality meant that it resonated with many Filipinos—if not with their experiences, then their anxieties.
Beyond incidents of excessive questioning or failing to catch one’s flight, the overall unpleasant experience at the airport compromises traveling, which has become one of the most important activities for Filipinos from all walks of life. The indoor waterfall in Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport is a luxury we can do away with—but seamless train connections and good public transport to and from airport (and between terminals!) are basics that we have long been deprived of. Ditto with being able to get into the gates without being exhausted by very long immigration queues (completely avoidable given the very predictable and knowable number of planes and passengers).
Moreover, it is when things go horribly wrong—as in the New Year Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) glitch—that we realize how precarious we are as travelers—even in our own country. Aside from actual delays and cancellations during that “epic fail,” it was the lack of assistance and compensation; the passengers’ feeling of being left high and dry that outraged many of the 60,000 affected.
Then there is also the bureaucracy that gets in the way even before many Filipinos set foot at the airport. Some overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) groups, for instance, have pointed out that the requirement to produce an “overseas employment certificate” (OEC) whenever they travel is just another layer of bureaucracy that causes additional stress. For government officials—including state-employed academics, having to request for “authority to travel” is an additional requirement that makes one’s trip uncertain at the very last minute.
Such bureaucratic inefficiencies are in stark contrast with the experience of those living elsewhere, making me understand why the perks of having a powerful passport and a painless traveling experience are a powerful draw for my generational peers to migrate to places like Canada, Australia, the US, and the EU.
Several years back, when I was living in the Netherlands as a Ph.D. student, my flight back to Manila got delayed, causing me to miss the flight and forcing me to spend the night in Frankfurt. Aside from the airline paying for my hotel and food, I managed to get a compensation of 400 euros a few months later—not a small amount for a graduate student!
Of course, the travel predicaments faced by Filipinos are not unique to our country; as I learned from attending international conferences, others even have it worse. Cited in the horror stories of academics and advocates from Indonesia and Pakistan to Kenya and Mexico, global health scholar Madhukar Pai described the status quo as an “unfair, unjust, and humiliating system.” Beyond visa inequities, the lack of passenger protections is also a problem in other countries, including the US, to the point of making it to Joe Biden’s agenda.
In fairness to our government and airport authorities, they have tried to make improvements over the years—e.g., the automatic arrival kiosks for Philippine passport holders—and in many aspects, the Naia experience today is actually smoother than a decade ago.
Also, it must be pointed out that there are good intentions behind many of our travel-related policies—including the desire to prevent human trafficking (hence the OECs and registration of OFWs) and corruption in government (hence the “authority to travel”).
These good intentions, however, are often undermined by the bad intentions of some who abuse those laws—and their sheer inefficiencies in their implementation. Also, as my colleague Anna Cristina Tuazon pointed out yesterday, it is the human trafficking syndicates and perpetrators that should be targeted by the government, while “making it easier for victims to signal for help” and addressing the conditions that make people vulnerable to trafficking in the first place.
President Marcos—a frequent flyer since childhood and someone who has lived and studied abroad—is in a good position to appreciate what traveling means for individuals and families. Since taking office, he has made full use of his own right to travel; I hope he will use the rest of his presidency to ensure that all Filipinos can.
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