By EUNICE BARBARA C NOVIO
SPECIAL TO THE NATION
The Kingdom has used millions of legal and illegal migrant workers from the region. Under the Asean community, Bangkok welcomes skilled workers, while agreements with immediate neighbours, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, have seen millions of unskilled labourers allowed to work in Thailand.
But workers from the Philippines have different stories. On January 10 this year, Jean Marie Q Belmonte, 29, and Lilia Bercasio Mabansay, 45, were arrested by Thai immigration police on charges of working without labour permits and for overstaying.
Both Belmonte and Mabansay had been working in a restaurant owned by an Emirati national in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area.
They were told to pay Bt100,000 each for working without permission. The next day, their employer and a lawyer from the United Arab Emirates embassy arrived, but were unable to help the two Filipinas. On January 12, the two women were taken to court to hear the charges against them, and bail was set at Bt50,000 each.
Belmonte and Mabansay were taken to Bangkok Women’s Correctional Institution in Klong Prem Central Prison. Belmonte was able to post bail with the help of friends and released on January 17. She was supposed to go straight to the airport for deportation, but was unable to pay the airfare, so her passport was withheld by the authorities until March 30.
Mabansay spent the maximum 48 days in prison before being transferred to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Suan Phlu. The Filipino community in Bangkok raised cash for her airfare and she was deported on March 28.
The Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), through its Social Welfare Attache Office, has provided Mabansay with psycho-social counselling. It also provided her with transportation assistance, including funds for incidental expenses when she returned to her family in Iriga City, 400 kilometres southeast of Manila.
In a letter from the Philippine Overseas Labour Office, Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod said Belmonte and Mabansay had no Thai employment record in the database of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency. Despite working illegally, the DSWD was firm in assisting the two. Secretary Judy Taguiwalo sought the assistance of International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for Belmonte’s repatriation.
Belmonte voluntarily returned to the Philippines from Bangkok on April 4. IOM-Philippines met her at the Ninoy Aquino Airport. She stayed one day at the DSWD shelter after receiving counselling.
Under IOM policy, Belmonte was given an Assisted Voluntary Return (AVVR) instead of the “Bali process”, as she was not a victim of trafficking.
According to the IOM website, AVVR offers administrative, logistical, financial and reintegration support to rejected asylum seekers, victims of trafficking in human beings, stranded migrants, qualified nationals and other migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country who volunteer to return to their countries of origin. It is also a policy of the IOM not to be a part of any deportation proceedings because it is considered “forced movement of people”.
Belmonte was given a $200 cash grant and will be given a reintegration fund of $1,000 for livelihood or vocational/technical training.
Currently, there are 24 Filipinas held at Bangkok Women’s Correctional Institution. Their cases include drug-related crimes, theft and robbery. The youngest is 28, the oldest 62. There are also at least eleven Filipinos presently detained at the IDC waiting for tickets back to the Philippines.
According to Belmonte, once inside Suan Phlu IDC or at the women’s prison, the detainee is not allowed to make any communication. But the Philippine Embassy and members of the Filipino community visit prisons across Thailand to check on their situation and to give assistance to Filipino detainees.
Secretary Taguiwalo promised that the DSWD would assist individuals who will go back to the Philippines once they have served their sentence. She also visited the prisoners on March 31.
There are 17,921 Filipinos in Thailand and an estimated 4,000 are considered irregular or undocumented.
The need for English teachers attracts Filipino professionals to Thailand. They usually enter as tourists and upon employment are given “Non-B” or working visas and work permits.
It is expected that the numbers will increase as the Asean Economic Community begins attracting low-income workers from countries including the Philippines to medium to high-income countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Trafficking and labour exploitation are among the issues Asean members must address.
Despite the increasing number of Filipinos, the Philippine Embassy has only 26 staff. There is no Philippine Overseas Labour Overseas office either.
The embassy does not have legal counsellors to advise or assist Filipinos in distress or a “quick response” fund that can be immediately tapped when Filipinos need to be immediately deported but have no money for the airfare. It takes time for funds to be released to a Filipino in distress.
The Asean Summit will be held in the Philippines on April 28-29.
It is expected that the draft instruments on the Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrants will be finalised.
Belmonte and Mabansay have been reunited with their families. But the increasing poverty in the Philippines means there will be more people like them who will take risks just to give a better life to their loved ones.