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Monday, October 27, 2008

Free movement

By Jeremaiah M. Opiniano

The following article was part of OFWJC's special publication 'Move.' The magazine was given to all delegates of GFMD Philippines.

PARIS, FRANCE—TERESA winced as if the camera flash hit her—just like she did when two men mauled her in her room here early morning three years ago.
“It just feels like it happened yesterday, you know, because I’m still illegal, undocumented, irregular, whatever,” she said, waving her arms as if the bad memories could be waved off like fruit flies.
I stopped taking pictures of her and started taking photographs of Parc-du-Saint-Cloud, the residence of Marie Antoinette before she was guillotined during the French Revolution.
It was the last stop of a free tour Teresa gave me after meeting at a Filipino store that she frequents.
“C’mon, it’s a good day to walk; I’ll show you around,” she said hours earlier and led the way to the Eiffel Tower and then to the Trocadero station.
It was windy that early afternoon but she would take her hands out of her wool jacket pocket to point at the places tourists frequent.
She walked briskly, as if the wind were sweeping her towards Trocadero.
“This is where most migrant workers’ life Paris begins,” Teresa said, nodding her head towards the station.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
Before she could reply, a group of Filipinos waved to Teresa and raised a thumb.
“See? During peak seasons for tourists here, Filipinos like them walk up to you and talk you into staying,” Teresa said.
That was how it went with her.
Brought to the City of Lights with her globe-trotting Saudi Arabian employer, Teresa struck a conversation with a fellow Filipino.
“She convinced me to run away, which I did, because she promised to help me find a job here. It was that easy.”
While sitting at the steps of where a mob could have dragged down Marie Antoinette to her death, Teresa continued her story.
Her story reveals there has never been a time than now when it’s easier for workers to move around despite of, in spite of, and even against greater state control over migration.
While many labor-sending and -receiving countries have tried time and again to restrict or manage labor flows, they have failed to impose such control over people like Teresa who, incidentally, is on her sixth year in France.
What many migration control schemes may have missed, or continue to miss, is that the human instinct for survival grows in proportion to the level of hope that migration offers.
THEY’VE been called “undocumented,” “irregular,” or “illegal” migrants and they form nearly 9 percent of the total 7 million permanent residents and temporary workers outside the Philippines.
That figure was last year’s and is based on government estimates. The number could go higher as Filipinos discover newer and newer ways of getting out of the country.
The Philippine government has identified a dozen schemes that Filipinos use to cloak their passage and secure employment overseas.
Among Southeast Asian countries, the absence of a visa requirement, for one, allows migrant workers to jump from one country to another within and outside the region.
Visa-free privileges are being used as alternatives to recruiters, thereby spawning irregular migration, a report by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas said.
Malaysia, for instance, doesn’t even require embarkation cards.
At Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport, a male immigration officer just placed the page of my passport bearing my photo under a beam of blue light that I guess could either be a portable camera or scanner.
“We are computerized, and our database can easily spot overstaying foreigners,” he said as he stamped my passport with the date of my arrival and the expected date of my departure from his country.
As it is easy to enter Malaysia, it is also easy for one to leave –boarding a train on a non-stop travel to the airport. The system even allows travelers to check in their luggage from the train station.
“Foreigners are welcome in our country, but they should not overstay,” a consul at the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur quoted Malaysian counterparts as saying.
For countries that require embarkation cards, like Vietnam, stepping on the welcome mat is also a walk in the park.
The card sports a red seal –stamped by an immigration officer in olive-green uniform– which is a golden ticket to pass through the gates and drink up the work rhythm of the Vietnamese, exemplified by the endless flow of motorcycles.
“That’s why we work hard and unwind once a week here,” textile firm employee Cresliejoy Abiang said at the Latino Bar at the third floor of Hanoi’s posh Melia Hanoi Hotel.
The honking of motorcycle horns on the streets is muted inside where Filipino performers work out the crowd to a dancing frenzy with their music.
“See, it’s already late in the evening, and you can still sense the Vietnamese going somewhere to do something important,” Abiang said as we stepped out of the hotel to escape the cigarette smoke engulfing the bar.
That’s why, she said, “Vietnam is visibly progressing, unlike the Philippines.”
It is the hard work of Abiang and her co-workers that moves an economically-struggling Philippines.
The country’s army of workers in France, Malaysia, Vietnam, and 190 other countries allowed the Philippine government to enjoy the billion-dollar remittance bonanza, according to economist Ernesto M. Pernia.
Countries poorer than or as poor as the Philippines have also reaped benefits.
International migration is “the single greatest poverty reduction effort in human history,” said social work professor Cindy Hunter, at a conference in Tours, France.
“THEY came when I was still in bed, shaking off the post-evening kinks,” Teresa said.
The two Filipinos kicked down the door to her room and took turns punching and slapping her while half of Paris was still asleep.
Teresa suspects the two men attacked her on orders of the husband of her landlady, the Filipina who convinced her to go underground in Paris.
Her husband thought I squealed to his wife that he was banging another Filipina, the 32-year-old Teresa said.
“How can I do so when his wife was getting plugged by another Filipino?”
Undocumented Filipino migrant workers sleeping in other rooms woke up and forced Teresa’s attacker to flee a possible mob lynching.
Her fellow workers goaded her into reporting the attack to the French police.
She was trembling when they were taking photos of her bruises, but not because of the violence she was subjected to.
Her employer would pay a hefty fine for employing an illegal migrant.
“I was telling myself, ‘No matter what happens, I’m not going to tell the police who my employer is,’” Teresa said. At the time of the attack, Teresa was working as a babysitter.
She was surprised, she said, when the police informed her they knew she was undocumented.
“They just told me to assert my rights – to organize.”
One of her attackers was arrested and was deported. His partner, according to Teresa, was on the wind.
“He knew how to disappear.”
Most irregular migrants do and are able to do so because of two networks: the train system and the social network.
While applying for a Schengen visa takes a month, it takes less than 24 hours to arrive at the Amsterdam Airport Schipol in the Netherlands –the gates of Europe.
Nearing midnight, the place is a veritable ghost town.
When I raised my head after bending to pick up my shoulder bag, the people I was with in the airplane and in the line to the immigration counter vanished like vapor.
I never felt so alone as I pushed my 35-kilogram worth of bags and luggage up several non-operating escalators –the airport shuts these off to save electricity.
I felt so lonely as I counted each rung the soles of my leather shoes kissed: 30.
When I reached Paris by train, I hit the sack right away. The combination of sitting inside a floating steel tube for 12 hours across two time zones and pushing a luggage while reading a map was confounded by walking alone in the world’s supposedly busiest airport.
But the trains are a delight to foreigners in France. As it is easy to get lost within the system of overlapping trains and metro routes in Paris, it is also easy finding the right station to alight.
With the Schengen visa and train money, foreigners can easily disappear in five countries adjacent to France. Teresa’s assailant may be roaming Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, or even Switzerland.
Except for the last, all are members of the European Union, where the Schengen visa applies.
IRREGULAR migrants are those who leave their countries without proper documentation like valid residence or work permits, or even those with proper documentation but who eventually lost their legitimate status or have overstayed in foreign countries.
France follows the United States and Malaysia as among the top five destinations of irregular Filipino migrants.
Most of these countries are immigration-restrictive regimes suffering labor shortages.
To understand that concept, I went to the 16th Area in Paris where the wealthy French and foreign businessmen live.
Here, capital is abundant. So are female and male Filipino cleaners and baby-sitters.
Filipinos walking along Victor Hugo Avenue have imbibed the French culture of not talking to strangers.
I gathered up courage and ambled to a group of talking Filipinos.
“Kamusta (How are you)?”
They told me they just appear snobbish because most of them are always on guard for raids and for things like what happened to Teresa.
They couldn’t be blamed; the work and the perks are also abundant here.
So said Cris, who gets 10 euros an hour from a woman with a business in Florida, United States, for cleaning her four-storey house in the 16th Area.
The rate for a dinner party with 150 guests is different. “She bought me two signature suits,” the worker of four years narrated, “when she told me I should be a waiter for a party at her home.”
Days later, the employer and the employee met.
“By the way,” Cris recalled her employer saying, “have my Pentium Centrino duo laptop: It’s old.”
Employees in the 16th area, where Cris lives, are lucky; employers can be generous.
The annual independence day event last July gathered more than 3,000 Filipinos – including hundreds of them pushing strollers carrying their own children, and others carrying children of their employers.
One Filipina gave finger food to a one-year-old blonde girl in a stroller. Another Filipina was beside her baby when the toddler’s parents came and carried the kid out of her stroller.
“Thank you so much,” said the couple in struggling English. “Go have some fun out here.”
Jean-Pierre Garson of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calls the 16th Area the “street of immigration”
Rue La Muette, also in the 16th Area, is quiet on the outside and “clean on the inside,” added Garson, OECD’s international migration section head, “due to the hard work of foreigners.”
The foreign workers there are “very well organized,” he added.
SOCIAL capital plays a major role in the ease of mobility and the ability of workers to shake off the fetters of state control on migration.
Teresa said that without the trust built among fellow migrants as workers, as Filipinos, and as women, she may have had second thoughts at running away from her employer.
There’s a strong support network among migrant Filipinos that facilitate the survival of any migrant, whether they be irregular or not.
According to Benjie Donguez, a former Philippine team athlete of the Malay sport pencak silat, that social capital extends to employers.
Donguez said one of his former employers had “connections” and used that network to secure for him a carte de sejour or French residency and work permit.
“I escaped after I joined a tournament in Belgium in 2005; I went to France to search for a job,” said Donguez at the steps of a foreign embassy in Paris where he works as a security officer.
Now a legal resident, Donguez said he won the trust of his French employer in cleaning a three-storey house everyday.
But while Donguez is confident now with his status, the move by current EU chair and French president Nicolas Sarkozy to control immigration in Europe and send home the “illegal” workers worries Cris and Teresa.
It’s a plan that Garson laughs off.
“That’s ‘pfffttt.’ How realistic is that to be implemented here in France?,” Garson said.
“That proposal has been saddled many times in the past.”
Real-life situations, like what’s happening daily in Paris’ streets of immigration “is much more complex,” explained Garson.
If the female domestic worker from Mauritius leaves, and the French employer can’t find a replacement for her, “what’s next [for the employer]?”
Garson pointed to the street outside his office at 2 Rue du Conseiller Collignon to prove his point.
“Rich French will all the more get foreign workers to clean their homes, and they have been happy with their (foreigners’) work.”
Recently, France suddenly scrounged for nurses and technology workers from the Philippines through a bilateral arrangement.
However, Philippine ambassador in Paris Jose Abeto Zaide said they have yet to finalize the details of that agreement.
“We will use quiet diplomacy [in dealing with EU immigration officials], but we are on top of the situation,” Zaide said when asked about Sarkozy’s threats.
Openly discussing such comforts and problems associated with global migration is what the world should continually do, Garson said.
“Countries may recognize these variances brought about by migration and discuss everything. Hopefully, countries will lessen complaining at each other,” he said.
While dialogues are being sought, and as host countries try to control migration, global mobility will remain rapid and easy as it is today.
Travelers like Filipinos and other nationals will thus continually search for convenience and comfort, and for reaping the possible benefits from finding fortunes elsewhere.
There is always hope, Teresa said, wiping her eyes with the back of her palm.
Her fiancée, a security officer, suddenly appeared beside her and they spoke in French.
Teresa patted her fiancée’s hand to say that everything’s alright and I was not the cause of her discomfort.
She said marrying him would ensure she gets her carte de sejour.
“I will try to go back home in Misamis Oriental, maybe in February. I miss my parents and my sisters and brothers. And then I’m going back here, not as an illegal anymore; not afraid anymore of what tomorrow will bring.”
She didn’t cry when she said that.
“I am months away from making it; I am almost there.” OFW Journalism Consortium, with support from the Royal Netherlands Embassy in the Philippines

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