Part I: Is the Bureau of Immigration Pushing Beyond its Powers and Violating the Filipino’s Right to Travel to Singapore?

A visit to the Philippine Embassy in 20 Nassim Road, one sunny and humid Sunday afternoon in Singapore will surprise someone with the sight of hundreds of Filipino countrymen queuing up for renewal of passports, issuance of overseas employment certificates (OECs), and yes, the new hot paper in town – the invitation letter.

For those new to the state country, the Philippine Embassy is open on Sundays to cater to thousands of Filipinos working there. The opening of the offices on this holy day is a great sacrifice for the hard-working ambassador, her consuls, the embassy employees, and the labor officers who are also part of the diplomatic corps. It is but a big relief to all Filipinos, most of whom are domestic helpers, who only get their day-offs on Sundays, and a chance to avail of government services.

Let us discuss more on this “invitation letter”. On a daily basis, the embassy authenticates around an average of 50 of this paper, gaining its peak of around a hundred on Sundays. This document is totally new to a common Filipino, as this is not one of the several documents that we encounter everyday in our local legal life. But to a Filipino who works and lives in Singapore, this is paper is a must. Authentication of the letter costs S$42.50 (PhP 1,4115.00), quite a hefty amount for an ordinary worker.

An “invitation letter” is actually an affidavit. It is an affidavit that states that the affiant (the person making the affidavit) who is Filipino is inviting another Filipino, preferably an immediate member of the family or relative, to visit Singapore. Other than this important detail, it includes other required and obvious collatillas such as the person visiting shall not violate the laws of Singapore, and the visit shall be for tourism purpose only.

Meanwhile, try to roam around the embassy on this hot afternoon, and also try to eavesdrop on conversations among groups of Filipinos and you may hear seldom-heard words such as “off-loading”. This maybe recited angrily with disappointment or disgust. “Off-loading” is the word used to describe the act of Immigration Officers stationed at various international airports in the Philippines of preventing or forbidding Filipinos to travel to Singapore.  It is based solely on their pure and impromptu whims, and disguised in their so-called unwritten power to enforce some enshrined laws of which they are “tasked” to implement.

For everyone’s information, it is the Bureau of Immigration and not the Philippine Embassy that requires invitation letters and their authentication. This document, Immigration mandates, should be sent to the invited Filipino relative who wishes to experience Singapore. It will then be shown or submitted to the immigration officer before departure at the international airport. Upon receipt, the immigration officer shall then pretend to read the letter, which contents and purpose he already knows, except maybe for the name of the invitee and the inviter. He shall then exercise  his personal judgment whether to permit the passenger to leave or not.

It is “heaven” when he permits the passenger to leave and definitely “hell” if not. With all airfare expense, travel tax, baggage freight expense paid in advance, who would not scream at the top of their lungs. I heard also stories of immigration officers who exchange their so-called judgment with a price. Ask the immigration officers their reason for not allowing the poor Filipino to travel. And they will answer you that it is all in their noble intention to implement the laws on anti-trafficking humans.

Before I continue with the more serious and detailed analysis of the true tasks of the Bureau of Immigration in the implementation of Republic Act No. 9208 (the Anti-trafficking in Persons Act of 2003), and the direct implication of the Bureau’s actions to the Filipino’s constitutional right to travel, let me leave you these questions:

Will this new Order introduced by the country’s Immigration office open the floodgate to a more serious problem? Will it give the opportunity for cunning immigration officers to make money in exchange for their discretion?

Part II next…

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