x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Philippines bars 'tourist workers'

Government crackdown on illegal recruitment and human trafficking.

ABU DHABI //About 70 per cent of the Filipinos barred from boarding flights at Manila's main airport in the last quarter of last year were found to be heading to the Middle East, according to an airport immigration official.

The numbers illustrate the Philippine government's ongoing drive against "tourist workers" - citizens who get tourist visas so they can eventually work in other countries.

The campaign, launched on the orders of the Philippine president Benigno Aquino III and the justice secretary Leila de Lima, aims to protect undocumented overseas Filipino workers, most of whom are victims of illegal recruitment and human trafficking syndicates.

Between August and December, immigration officials barred 21,709 residents from leaving Ninoy Aquino International Airport because they suspected they were attempting to become migrant workers by first using a tourist visa, said Maria Antonette Bucasas, the immigration bureau's airport divisions chief.

"They initially claim to be travelling to Asian cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok on a tour, but would later admit to using these as jump-off points to the Middle East," she said.

Ms Bucasas discourages Filipinos with UAE tourist visas from presenting an affidavit of support and guarantee document to be cleared for departure, arguing that it raises questions about one's capacity to actually go on vacation.

An affidavit of support, notarised by the Philippine embassy or consulate, is presented to show proof that someone else is financing the trip.

"An affidavit of support already casts a doubt on the passenger since he or she can't undertake the travel itself and is at risk," she said. "It may be one of the documents that can be presented but it doesn't guarantee that he or she will be allowed to depart."

Ms Bucasas said those intending to work overseas should obtain the necessary clearance and employment permits from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration in Manila.

"They have to ensure that they are properly documented, and taking shortcuts would be detrimental," she said. "They would be vulnerable to exploitation, and we in government cannot protect them as we don't know where they are."

The airport does not break down its data to show how many Filipinos on tourist visas were prevented from boarding flights to Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

"But we've also had cases of passengers claiming to have friends who were getting married in Dubai," said Ms Bucasas. "But upon closer examination, they were found to be having prospective employment there. It is expensive to travel to Dubai for a mere tour, and we have noticed that the majority of them are low-skilled workers."

Immigration officers are required to assess the purpose of travel and the capacity of the traveller to undertake the cost of the trip. In addition to documents proving the personal capacity to travel, officers also assess the appearance and demeanour of the traveller. Since August, immigration officers have been ordered to be on the lookout for suspected victims of human trafficking, and to prevent their departure from the Philippines.

rruiz@thenational.ae