‘Permanence of absence’ | Inquirer Opinion

‘Permanence of absence’

/ 11:53 PM February 15, 2013

National Migrants Sunday will be marked tomorrow. Twenty-seven years back, a new Commission on Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People set the first Sunday of Lent to focus attention on a fast growing stream of migrants.

Today, a quarter of Filipino workers are scattered in over 193 countries. “Labor migration has been called a ‘civil religion’ in the Philippines,” says the Asian Century Institute. “An ever-growing force, international migration shows few signs of retreat,” adds the New York Times.


This rite jogs our memory. We once took Southern China Airlines’ Flight 309 for Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, with a Beijing stopover. Eight seats away was a nanny, with two Chinese kids in tow. Her simple T-shirt-and-jeans, braids and accent proclaimed: Filipino.

We chatted in the Beijing airport corridors. She was from Pampanga. Her mistress was visiting relatives, pointing to the bejeweled matron striding ahead. They’d visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City with the kids.


An airport official urged us to move along. Our petite friend waved goodbye and blended into the queues. What would be the stories from an estimated 10 million Filipinos now abroad?

“Roughly 3,752 Filipinos leave daily,” Viewpoint noted. “That’s over 30 times the first clutch of timid migrants who left five decades back … The ‘youth bulge’ is evident. Many are between 25 and 44 years old. And 36 out of every 100 have a college degree.”

Filipinos serve as air traffic controllers in Dubai, engineers in Libya, maids in Hong Kong, illegal handymen in Saudi Arabia, or musicians on luxury cruise vessels plying the Caribbean.

“You don’t have to answer this, Captain,” a foreign recruiter told the Filipino 747 pilot. “You’re No. 7 in seniority at your airline. Why sign up with us?”

“Simple,” our high school classmate replied. “You pay me five times more. And it’s all tax-free.”

The recruiter beamed. “Sign here, Captain.”

The number of international migrants doubled in the past quarter-century to more than 200 million. In Latin America, Filipinos, Indonesians and Bangladeshis spearhead migrants from Asia. The Filipino emigration rate is double that of Vietnam.


The European Union pegs illegal Filipinos or TNTs (tago nang tago) at 113,000. About two percent of illegals in the United States are Filipinos. There are 3.4 million Filipinos naturalized as Americans. That includes our five kids.

“We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez,” President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union Address. When Hurricane “Sandy” plunged NYU Langone Medical Center into darkness, the  56-year-old registered nurse—born, raised and educated in the Philippines—organized staff to evacuate 20 at-risk babies. Cell phone glow lighted their way down eight floors.

Sanchez sat between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden as the US president delivered his speech.

International migrants are on track to remit an increase of 6.5 percent in savings to their families, says the World Bank in its “Migration and Development Brief 19.” Filipinos are No. 3 among the top 10 recipients of migrant remittances. China is No. 2, and Mexico No. 4.

Credit Melanie Reyes of Miriam College for a comprehensive review of studies on the effects of migration on children left behind. About 9 million (27 percent) of the young fall into this bracket. “Global parenting” is reduced to phone, Internet or Facebook. But man does not live by  padala  alone. Children feel abandoned, especially by migrant mothers. And seven out of 10 overseas Filipino workers are female.

The kids “tend to be more angry, apathetic, confused—and afraid,” the scientists note. A “permanence of absence” mindset, like that of orphans, engulfs many. And if the eldest child is a girl, the burden of performing a mother’s tasks is strapped willy-nilly on her.

Padala generates a vicious circle of migration. They underwrite the education of family members in preparation for their emigration. And thus is a “migration mindset” cobbled. People’s first thought is to head for the exit.

When large numbers want to scram, pressure on government to implement reforms eases. The elite are only “too happy to feel no domestic political pressure to give up privileges such as tax evasion and corruption.”

The Asian Century Institute recalls then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling President Aquino: “Let’s be very honest here. Too many [migrants] feel they cannot progress in their own country. Too many feel that the elite in business and politics basically call the shots.

“And there’s not much room for someone who’s hardworking, but not connected. Too many believe that even if they get the best education, that there won’t be an opportunity for them. And so they take that education and help build someone else’s economy, very often here in the US.”

A country that cannot hold on to its best and brightest compromises its future. Such countries find they must reinvent themselves, as nations beyond borders. Migration drains the Philippines of essential skills, the Asian Development Bank cautions. Spoon-feeding individuals and governments puts off tough reforms.

“My mom was always sleeping during the day because she works at night,” explains a Filipino migrant’s son who joined gangs. “And my dad works all the time. They thought getting money on the table was the only thing they should do.”

“When we first came to Britain, our children were babies,” the migrant parents say. “Now they are young adults with their own culture and their own ideas. And we don’t know how to deal with them.”

Twenty-seven years of Migrant Sundays from today, the wife and I will long be gone. Can anyone tell us what “permanence of absence” will have etched into the children of today’s diaspora?

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: Juan L. Mercado, labor, migration, National Migrants Sunday, ofws, opinion, Viewpoint
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