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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: The Filipino who will never leave a fellow kabayan behind

Paul Cortes, Consul General to Dubai and the Northern Emirates, has one of the most important jobs in the Philippines foreign service - to serve 700,000 expats thousands of miles from home

Paul Raymond Cortes, the Philippine consulate general, at an event to introduce business community leaders from the ASEAN Member Nations. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Paul Raymond Cortes, the Philippine consulate general, at an event to introduce business community leaders from the ASEAN Member Nations. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Visa woes. Arrested citizens. Traffic accidents. And holidaymakers in hospital with bills they can't pay.

The job of a senior diplomat in any country far from home is a daily challenge.

But when there's trouble at hand, you need a countryman or woman - known as 'kabayan' in Tagalog - that who won't let you down.

Often seen as the last ray of hope for Filipinos in a desperate situation, the weight of expectation sits heavily on the shoulders of the nation’s General Consul Paul Cortes.

As chief of mission in the UAE for one of the largest diasporas of Philippine nationals Mr Cortes and his staff has been at the centre of the UAE's visa amnesty campaign.

It has seen thousands of expats living and working without visas given the chance to legalise their status in the country or go home, with visa fines waived.

And it has been a busy two weeks.

“All of the Filipinos here in the UAE still have a Philippine passport, so use the consulate for any kind of assistance - we don’t see this kind of demand for government services anywhere else in the world,” said Mr Cortes, who moved to Dubai in 2015 with his wife and three children.

“People expect you to be their last ray of hope, and that is a big responsibility. If you cannot play that role, then who can?

“I take my position very seriously, as I would want someone else to be able to play that role for my own family.”

The Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) estimates approximately 10.2 million Filipinos are living or working abroad, about 11 percent of the population.

Mr Cortes was posted as chief of mission in Dubai following stints in Europe and America over the past 20 years.

Before his arrival in post in 2015, the consulate in Dubai was struggling to meet the requirements of its citizens, ranking last in government performance criteria.

In 2017, the Dubai office was named the best performing Philippine service mission with Mr Cortes presented with the Gawad Mabini award by President Rodrigo Duterte for distinguished foreign service.

Since 2015, procedures at the consulate have been streamlined to speed up the process for visitors seeking help.

A courtesy queueing lane was introduced and a special consular day was introduced to address backlogs in the passport appointment system.

A shorter processing time for documents was gradually implemented and notarized documents were released earlier to help out nationals.

In 2017, the Dubai mission processed 71,566 passports and notarized 57,603 documents.

It also repatriated 1,269 distressed Filipinos, including 23 medical repatriations and 19 shipments of remains.

Previous postings for Mr Cortes included Budapest and Honolulu between 1998 and 2004, where demand for service were very different.

“It is totally different here in Dubai,” he said.

“People look at me as the answer to all their problems, and that is not always possible.

“There is a constant demand for help, and with people often asking for help at all hours of the day and night, it is not a normal 9-5 job.

“We have to be available constantly, so I get calls in the middle of the night from Filipinos who need help.

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“Some people have a different time frame to when they need help, and it is not just phone calls it is Facebook messages, other social media and I have to make it clear to people where we are and exactly what services we can provide.

“It puts a pressure on the family, but we deal with it.”

As one of the biggest foreign service posts outside of the Philippines, by the very nature of the job Mr Cortes is a busy man.

And the problems he has been asked to intervene with during the visa amnesty are familiar ground.

“It has been busier than normal, but it has been the usual fare,” he said.

“There has been a lot of demand for consular services. We have about 700 people coming in and out each day for passport services and visa enquires.

“The government’s amnesty programme has seen a spike in the demand for help and assistance.

“I get to see many of our nationals who are in hospital. Around 40 per cent have their own healthcare provisions in place, but there are many who don’t.

“This is when the Philippine government steps in, either financially, spiritually or morally.

“With that in mind, the government can’t be the answer to everything, but we can provide critical information when it’s needed for our community.”