Reflections from the Philippines

As some of you know, I traveled to the Philippines in November for a two week exposure trip. I wrote about my experience in my recent newsletter, but for everybody who does not receive my newsletter, here’s another reflection that I wrote for the APMM monthly newsletter. Sorry it’s a little long….

At the end of November and beginning of December, I traveled to the Philippines for a 15 day exposure experience with Migrante International and the United Methodist Church. My trip was a whirlwind experience, both amazing and fabulous at times and challenging at others.

I decided to travel to the Philippines for a number of reasons. I will leave Hong Kong at the end of January, and as my experience here draws to a close, I thought that it would be appropriate to complete my experience in Hong Kong with an exposure trip in the Philippines. I have spent the past 14 months at APMM learning about migration in Asia largely from the perspective of a host country. APMM gave me intimate knowledge of conditions of migrants in host countries and the problems that they encounter. However, I lack firsthand experience with issues and conditions in the sending country. Also, APMM works very closely with Migrante International, I even campaigned with them in April this year, but I wanted to see how Migrante organizes returned OFW’s and their families, and how it engages stakeholders to advocate for the rights of migrants overseas on the ground. The guiding questions for this exposure experience were: how does Migrante serve the migrant population in the Philippines? What can advocates and other organizations learn from this model?

My 15-day exposure experience answered these questions incredibly well. I did not learn everything, but I understand a significant more about Migrante as an organization, how it operates, and about the situation of migration in general in the Philippines.

While in the Philippines, I engaged in several aspects of the work of Migrante. I completed several office tasks for them, attended a few rallies and protests, assisted with the repacking of relief goods for those affected by Typhoon Yolanda, and traveled to Leyte to deliver these goods to those in need. I also engaged in many informal conversations with staff about various aspects of migration, met victims of human trafficking and even visited Congress. My exposure included meeting with two ministers of the United Methodist Church (the body that sent me to Hong Kong). During these meetings, I witnessed how the Church responds to migrants in crisis situations as well. I learned about the ministries of the UMC in the Philippines and discovered ways to connect my home church and sending organization to these projects.

I learned that Migrante International is an organization that RESPONDS to the needs of migrant Filipinos and their families in any way imaginable. I witnessed this response in two primary ways: through the recent campaign against human trafficking and the relief operation to Leyte.

MI has launched a campaign called “Stop the Traffic” to call for an end to human trafficking of Filipinos by the Aquino government in the form of labor export policy and illegal recruitment. They handled a case of victims of human trafficking to the United States called the Florida 15. This case involved over a dozen Filipinos trafficked into Florida to work as waitresses, dish washers and maids in upscale hotels. Each victim paid thousands of US dollars for a visa only to experience contract substitution, delayed payment and underpayment in wages. One victim was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Florida because the recruiter failed to properly file for an extension in his visa and did not inform the victim. Several of these victims applied for and received T-Visas (trafficking visas) in the United States, and Migrante has been working with the families to help them file with the appropriate department in the Philippines to receive compensation. MI also launched a media campaign to raise public awareness about this case.

When I was in the Philippines, Migrante learned of a case of human trafficking involving over 100 teachers to Washington DC. These Filipinos, primarily women, paid thousands of US dollars to a recruiter who told them that he could obtain employment for them in schools in Washington DC earning almost 30 USD per hour. After paying the various recruitment fees and airline tickets, they discovered upon arrival that these jobs did not exist. Many found employment in daycare centers were they earned minimum wage or only about 10 USD per hour. They experienced exploitative working conditions and racial discrimination. After enduring these conditions for several months or even years, they sought assistance from a chapter of Gabriela Women’s Party in Washington DC. Migrante is currently identifying and contacting victims to help them file cases with POEA and other departments. I attended one meeting with victims. The staff of Migrante talked with members of Gabriela via Skype, discussed approaches and counseled victims on how to file at POEA. They talked about the importance of speaking out and banding together to seek justice.

The second main way that I witnessed Migrante in response was through the relief operation to Leyte. Migrante launched the relief operation after Typhoon Yolanda in association with BALSA. Migrante collects monetary and in-kind donations through its chapters overseas and then uses the funds to purchase bulk items in the Philippines. Staff and volunteers, including myself, repacked all the goods into a unit to distribute to each family. We created 1,000 sacks of relief goods containing rice, dried fish, canned goods, salt, mung beans, cookies, oil, and water. Repacking itself involved the mobilization of dozens of volunteers working in almost 12 hour shifts, and all staff members sidelining other work to donate at least a few hours to repacking.

I joined in the delivery of these relief goods  to Leyte. We distributed these goods in three separate villages. Migrante International used knowledge from its coordinators on the ground to target areas under-reached by current relief operations.

During the relief operation itself, I experience a range of emotions. As we crossed into Tacloban City, I could only think “oh my God.” Everyone fell silent in the van as we drove through the city. I was speechless. I found it difficult to process what I was seeing. The devastation in the city is total and complete. The storm affected every single building in some way. Every structure is missing at least a roof, possibly walls, and many collapsed entirely. The telephone poles lie fallen on buildings, yards and abandoned lots. There is debris and trash everywhere. Corrugated iron, pieces of roofs, rubble, concrete, collapsed power lines, pieces of wood fill lots and line the streets. Smoke blankets the city as the residents burn trash and other debris to clear it. And yet, life continues. The streets were crowded with people; the market is open, and at least one church continued its services. Jeepneys carry people home. The residents are trying to figure out how to rebuild their lives and their city.

Distribution of relief goods occurred over two days and in three separate villages. I saw many emotions on the faces of those in line and after they received their foodstuffs. Relief, gratitude, hope and excitement were among these emotions.  Relief that everyone would eat dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. Gratitude that someone was finally helping them and cared about them even one month after the storm hit. The relief goods gave families hope and strength that they could rebuild their lives.

Migrante International does not specialize in relief operation nor does it specialize in assisting victims of human trafficking. However, their mission is to help their fellow Filipinos in need as much as possible. I also witnessed this drive to help people among the Filipino domestic worker population in Hong Kong because right after Typhoon Yolanda hit, we received an enormous influx of donations to the office. Thus, Migrante International also acts as representatives of the migrants on the ground. The migrants cannot be physically present to help with relief efforts, but through MI, the migrants can also assist victims of various calamities in the Philippines.

My exposure taught me that Migrante International is an organization that tirelessly seeks justice for victims and survivors of state policies that threaten to destroy their lives. Migrante empowers victims to stand up and fight for their rights. They will explore every avenue for redress and even if the victim ultimately loses, Migrante will raise public awareness about the issue and lobby for changes in the laws to protect victims. Overall, I learned an enormous about how Migrante advocates for the rights of migrants in the Philippines. I also think that other organizations could learn similar tactics from Migrante to apply to the situation in their own country, and I hope that Migrante International becomes a model for other progressive peoples organizations.

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