By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City
Under the sweltering heat of July’s summer sun, I was singing to myself the ironic song of Evita while walking towards the UN headquarters which is facing the East River. “…the answer is (not) here all the time, I love you and hope you love me…” I know too well the answer isn’t in that huge space allotted for the community of nations to blah-blah and brandish their rhetoric. The answer to all human issues around the world is in every person and in every concerned government state.
But then, there I was again, in another one of those huge conferences which the UN had gathered, this time by the Economic and Social Council, to talk on a “high level” manner issues on Diaspora and Development.
The theme already is bothersome.
My home country bleeds off its people to distant shores all the time, since the 1500s. And that is not a sign of development. That social bleeding is a symptom of an economic disease, and a twisted notion of development.
I remember six years ago, Melanie and three of her co-teachers had to rebook their flight to the following day that they were supposed to be scheduled to fly to New York. There wasn’t something ominous about it. It’s just that the 747 was already in maximum capacity of 355 teachers ready for work in the states of New York, Maryland, and New Jersey in 2007. All on board were Filipino teachers, mentally preparing themselves to face what was to become one of toughest jobs on earth, teaching teenagers in America.
In a similar case, one travel agent once opined to me that flights to Saudi Arabia, from Manila or Hong Kong could easily be filled by Filipino expatriates every day. The Philippines has the biggest traffic of passengers to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, and booking for a flight could get so tough. You don’t want to miss a flight, she said.
The Philippines is one of the world’s biggest exporters of workers, easily 40,000 each day, destined to eke a living even in some unknown places in Africa and the Antarctica. In the process, these workers become voiceless and in the margins of their work places, and have to maximize digital technology to be able to link with their loved ones left in the Philippines.
Philippine diaspora traces its history way back in the Spanish galleon trade in the Philippines in the 1500s. Filipino seafarers escaped the wrath of their Spanish masters when they landed in old America. Their first early settlements were in Louisiana and then later in California.
Towards the early 1900s, Filipino workers were labored in the asparagus plantations in Hawaii and California.
Massive migration patterns towards the US and the Middle East began after WWII, up to this date. Dreadfully called brain drain, the Philippines is a top sending country of its very own teachers, doctors, nurses, and other professionals to foreign shores. Who are left behind are the young and inexperienced entrants to the labor force.
It is easy to see that the diaspora is motivated by economic reasons. The Philippines continues to be a country with lesser or no economic opportunities, hence people are enticed to boldly venture new lives somewhere else.
The cost is outrightly the breaking apart of families and the uncertainty of the dream of luxury and stability. Here in the US, the once popular American dream is fast becoming a nightmare for most new immigrants.
Melanie, for instance, is a living example of a teacher living by the payday, with six children to raise in the US, and all the bills to pay for. At the end of each month, a measly amount of dollars, if at all, is left in her pocket.
“It is wrong for people to think that we are living a luxurious life in the US. Life here is harder, I would say,” she said. Melanie was not petitioned for a Green Card by the school she has worked for the past five years. Towards the last year of her contract, sensing that the school district does not intend to fulfill its promise of seeking for her permanent resident status, she was in a mad scramble for another petitioner.
She was one of the lucky ones who got a new one. The others who did not had to pack up and go back home while the others gambled to overstay.
Inside the massive hall of the UN, social development organizations gathered at the conference on diaspora and development emphasized on their government’s accountability for the protection of the rights of its citizens in diaspora.
At the 2013 UN High Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and Development, some 200 participants discussed wide-ranging concerns of global migration and its subsequent issues on wages, welfare, safety, and stability of the migrant population.
The Philippine government showcased itself as having one of the best practices as a sending country, with four agencies set up to ensure the expatriation of its people.
It’s not something to be proud of. Although the Philippine government never admits that it is very well into its labor export policy as a way to earn dollars for its economy, by institutionalizing four agencies for labor migration, it does not need to say it.
In fact, the presence of these agencies to traffic expats for labor has subconsciously created a mindset among Filipinos that development begins somewhere else outside my home. Ironically however, in many cases, the Philippine government has not efficiently stood by and protected Filipinos abroad when they needed to be, when they were trafficked and abused.
Two days prior to the July 15 HLD meeting, the same attending groups engaged in impassioned and exhaustive discussions on what their governments must do in order to respond to problems faced by immigrants all over the world.
To my mind, I asked why ever not have the facilitators thrown the question, for the sake of leveling off, on looking at development from three vantage points: the sending country, the migrant people, and the receiving county. It would have saved a lot of time and it would have immediately hit the heart of the issue.
Sending countries stand to lose their people in diaspora. They lose the talented, dedicated, skilled ones who had to separate from the families, in the hope that work abroad would make them economically stable, which is not always the case.
Migrant people do not necessarily win their dreams abroad. The immediate cost would be their nostalgia and the immediate risk would be their health and at worst deaths in the work place. Many, of course, because of hard work and talent, are able to succeed and shine in their fields.
The receiving countries stand to benefit from the diaspora. In concrete, these countries are the US and Saudi Arabia, the two most popular destinations for Filipinos, who hire the best of the people for its industries.
The Global Coalition on Migration, a world-wide non-profit organization, has underscored the priority of regulating the recruitment industry, using the ‘rights-based bilateral agreements of sending and receiving countries’ for migrant labor recruitment.
To institutionalize the protection of migrant populations is incumbent in each government state. But social organizations have to push for this, otherwise, state governments will be lame and lazy. The community of nations can only agree to write and unite on protocols. But then those are teethless without the corresponding government and civic action in each country and locality.
Unless groups and individuals consciously stand for what they deserve, everything is all but high level rhetoric. The answer and action, once again, is within us all the time.
(Photo by Velma Adlawan)