Love and Relationships

Our loved ones are not tourists: Binational couples ask for safe reunion in PH

Ysa Abad
Our loved ones are not tourists: Binational couples ask for safe reunion in PH

BINATIONAL COUPLES. (Left) John and Jeselle and (RIGHT) Chad and Ken.

Unite Us in Philippines

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to separate them, Filipinos with foreign partners hope that they'll be given the chance to reunite with their loved ones soon

MANILA, Philippines – “Bago pa man magkaroon ng COVID-19 pandemic ay mahirap na mag-maintain ng long-distance relationship, paano pa kaya ngayon? Dumoble’t trumiple ‘yung naging pasakit para sa amin.

(Maintaining a long-distance relationship was hard enough as it was before the pandemic, what more now? Our challenges have doubled, tripled.)

This was the sentiment among most members of Unite Us In Philippines, a group of Filipino citizens lobbying for safe and responsible reunification with their foreign partners, from whom they continue to be separated for nearly two years and counting. 

When Metro Manila first closed its international borders in March 2020 in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19, Steph, Larra, Katrina, and Liv initially thought the imposed one-month lockdown was just a temporary delay of their plans to see their partners. 

Wala sa hinagap ko na tatagal nang hanggang ganito, kasi diba, hindi naman agad inannounce ng WHO (World Health Organization) na global pandemic na ‘yung COVID-19. Akala ko ‘yung pinakamatagal na ay isa hanggang sa dalawang buwan na lockdown. Hindi ko naisip na ganito ‘yung extent niya,” Steph, a 40-year-old Filipina married to an Indian national, said. 

(I never imagined it would last this long, since the WHO didn’t immediately announce that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. I thought the lockdown would last two months at most. I didn’t think it would go to this extent.)

Larra, 24, shared that her US citizen fiancé was supposed to come back to the Philippines in February 2020, but failed to do so because of the travel restrictions. “Akala namin siguro two weeks o isang buwan lang tatagal ‘yung travel ban. Pero noong patuloy na tumaas ‘yung cases at lumampas ng tatlong buwan ‘yung lockdown, parang doon na nagsink-in sa akin at nagsimula ‘yung iyakan,” she said. 

(We thought the travel ban would only last from two weeks to a month. But when the cases continued to rise and we’d passed the three-month mark of the lockdown, it was then that reality began to sink in and all the crying started.)

Katrina, a 25-year-old accountant, recalled that she wasn’t initially bothered by the travel ban. “Busy season kasi namin from January to April sa trabaho kaya wala naman talaga akong balak mag-travel. (It’s always busy at work from January to April so I really had no plans of traveling.)

She shared that she and her boyfriend from the US planned to meet for the first time in person once the country’s borders opened again. “Akala namin mabilis lang…. Talagang hindi namin inexpect na ganito siya katagal. Natapos na ‘yung busy season namin tapos nagsimula na ulit ang panibagong busy season pero hanggang ngayon, hindi pa rin kami nagkikita.” 

(We thought this would be quick…. We really didn’t expect things to last this long. Busy season had come and gone, and the next busy season had already started, and we still haven’t seen each other.)

In Liv’s case, she was supposed to marry her German partner of seven years in 2020. But the wedding got delayed because she was stranded and alone in the Philippines during the lockdown – all while undergoing chemotherapy for breast and colon cancer. 

Napakahirap talaga ng sitwasyon namin…. Talagang in-limbo kami noong partner ko. Hindi namin alam kung saang bansa kami pupunta para magkita (Our situation is so difficult…. My partner and I are really in limbo. We don’t know which country we can go to so we could finally see each other).… In the end, we were forced to get married outside the Philippines since my partner can’t enter the country,” she said.

Liv emphasized that she’s both lucky and privileged that they have contingency plans and the financial means to act on their situation. But she added that even if she’s also a permanent resident of Australia, she also had difficulties in leaving the Philippines and going to a different country. 

May ibang airplane tickets kaming naka-ready, may ibang lugar na pwedeng puntahan, at may mga available visas kami na pwedeng magamit (We have plane tickets at the ready, there are other places we can go to, and we have visas we can use).”

But she was aware that not everyone was in the same situation, and that most Filipino partners of foreign citizens were at a loss as to when and how they would be reunited with their loved ones.

It was through these shared struggles that their group, Unite Us In Philippines, was formed. 

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Unite Us in Philippines

Unite Us in Philippines is a movement dedicated to uniting and reuniting unmarried binational couples and families who have been forcibly separated by travel bans in the Philippines brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Composed of Filipino citizens and their foreign partners, the group aims to avoid misinformation about travel requirements, inbound travel updates, travel restrictions, and other travel protocols in the Philippines.

“We want a permanent solution to our problem, and that is to allow foreign loved ones into our territory,” they said. 

With the threat of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and more binational couples hoping to spend the holidays together, Liv said that their group has received an influx of queries from fellow binational couples. From four hours a day, most of their core group members now spend at least 15 hours of their day addressing their concerns. 

Para na kaming one-stop shop eh. Tinutulungan namin sa pag-ayos ng documents hanggang sa kung ano ang gagawin kapag nag-reroute ng flight. Talagang kahit sa airport, minomonitor namin ‘yung mga kababayan natin,” she said. 

(We’ve become like a one-stop shop. We help people arrange documents and advise them on what to do if their flights are rerouted. We even monitor our fellow nationals at the airport.)

Liv specified that the required documents are usually the Affidavit of Support and Guarantee for those traveling outside of the Philippines to meet their partners, and the Affidavit of Admission of Paternity for Foreign National Parents of a Filipino minor, for those foreign citizens who have Filipino children and are planning to enter the country. 

Unite Us in Philippines also maintains a Hope Desk helpline where they hold virtual discussions about the frequently asked questions they’ve encountered in the group. 

Liv shared that since the group’s establishment, they were able to help several binational couples on concerns such as: 1) How foreign married partners can come home to the Philippines; 2) What the necessary documents are for binational couples that are not married yet but already have a child; 3) How binational couples, who’ve never met in person prior to the pandemic, can prove the authenticity of their relationship; and 4) The chances that a Filipino citizen traveling to another country will be offloaded.

 Liv told Rappler that there were several instances wherein they helped Filipino citizens return to the Philippines after they were abandoned by their foreign partners after meeting in a different country.

Throughout the pandemic, they said that binational couples and multinational families could only reunite through two options – first, the foreign partner being granted entry in the Philippines through a special visa, and second, the couple opting for a third country to meet in, meaning both would fly out to a specific country that was not the Philippines in order to meet there. 

Steph said that her foreign husband was able to comply with the first option through the assistance of the group. While she was thankful that they had the opportunity to be reunited, she stressed that the process was both tedious and expensive. 

“It took us three months para makuha ‘yung visa niya kasi ang dami-daming papalit-palit pagdating sa requirements at kailangan gawin (just to get the visa, since the requirements kept changing and there was so much to do).

“On the night of his flight, ayaw pa siya ipa-board. Kailangan pa tumawag sa authorities kasi hindi pa updated ‘yung IATF regulations. Para kang nagka-trauma talaga. Grabe ‘yung anxiety. Nag-iiyakan na lang kami noong tatlong anak namin eh. (He wasn’t even allowed to board the plane. They had to call the authorities because regulations from the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases had yet to be updated. It felt really traumatizing. My anxiety was through the roof. My three kids and I would just end up crying.)

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Kahit kasal na kami at may mga anak, nahirapan pa rin kami asikasuhin ‘yong pagpasok niya sa Pilipinas. Paano pa kaya ‘yung mga sisters natin na hindi pa kasal? (We had a tough time getting my husband into the country, despite us being married and having kids. What more our sisters who are not yet married?)

Meanwhile, Larra flew out to Dubai to meet her foreign partner. Compared to international travels pre-pandemic, she shared that she had to process additional documents for the flight. 

But more than the additional paperwork, Unite Us in Philippines stressed how risky and expensive meet-ups in a different country could be – hence their call for safe reunification in the Philippines instead.

Sana naman hindi ma-stuck na naka-close nang ganito ‘yung borders natin. Kasi masyado nang left behind ‘yung Pilipinas eh (I hope we don’t end up with our borders just closed like this. The Philippines has been really left behind.) At this point, we should already know how to live with COVID-19,” Steph said. 

Liv hoped the Philippines could instead recognize foreign partners as family members and not tourists. “Bago mag-open ang para sa general tourists, sana i-una muna ‘yung mga foreign partners (Before borders open up for general tourists, I hope they give priority instead to foreign partners)…. There are ways to safely and responsibility unite binational families in the country,” she said. 

“It seemed like no one cared about binational couples,” Chad, a US citizen who’s engaged to a Filipino named Ken, said. “The USA and Philippines are allowing investors, celebrities, and other wealthy people to enter both countries as they please, as if they were not also carrying the threat of a virus; this to us is the most disturbing and hurtful condition that both countries have done.”

He continued, “[They’re] allowing select people to enter while all the time ignoring binational couples because they are not married. But even if Ken and I were married, we won’t still be allowed entry because we’re of the same sex, and there are same sex couples [that include a] Filipino citizen who have been denied entry.”

Lives on hold

With the looming threat of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, members of Unite Us in Philippines feel like they’re back to square one – another uncertain period of not knowing what will happen next to their relationship.

On Twitter, they have started a social media campaign to emphasize how separation has affected their lives. 

“Our lives have been on hold for almost two years. Waiting and waiting. The unknown is torture. [We feel] so helpless,” said one binational couple. 

“This needs to end, leaders; you have protocols in place, [please] include us, we miss our families terribly. We are not tourists, let us reunite,” they said. 

John, a US citizen, recalled how heartbreaking it was to find out about his daughter’s death while away from his Filipina partner Jeselle. Fortunately, he was granted the exemption to enter the Philippines to mourn for their child, but ultimately had to return to the US for work. 

“We acknowledge the fact that we are lucky (despite tragic circumstances), in the sense that we have spent more time physically together than apart.… This pandemic has been the ultimate test for binational couples all over the world for far too long,” the couple said. 

Liv highlighted John and Jeselle’s situation as one of the many facets of binational couples being separated during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that while most of their group members are couples who are about to get married, there are also those who have sick or deceased relatives in the Philippines, or expectant mothers about to give birth or have already given birth who want their foreign partners to be by their side.

Liv pointed out that their call for help hasn’t really been acknowledged, given the stigma surrounding binational couples and families. “May ibang nagsasabi na kaartehan lang namin ‘yung pagka-miss na ‘yan. Hindi nila maintindihan na totoong buhay ‘to, totoong tao ‘to at totoong relasyon ‘to,” she said. 

(Some dismiss our plight as shallow. They don’t understand that these are real lives being affected, that these are real people and real relationships.)

Sarah, a core member of Unite Us in Philippines, who is in a relationship with a Mexican citizen, confessed that she sometimes felt hopeless and unsure if their relationship would still survive the pandemic.  

With the different time zones, constantly changing travel guidelines, and even poor internet service, Sarah emphasized how hard it is for binational couples to communicate with each other. 

Being apart from each other for so long can also impact one’s mental and physical health. She revealed that most of their group members admitted  to feeling depressed, anxious, and stressed since they do not know when they can see their partners again. In fact, Sarah and Liv shared that that their group has even helped Filipino partners who have attempted suicide because of the mental stress their situations have imposed on them. 

Aside from the mental and emotional stress that their situation brings, she added that she also dealt with unwarranted opinions from other people about her foreign partner.

Akala noong mga kakilala ko, wala siyang effort na ginagawa [para magkita kami]. ‘Yung iba, nagtatanong pa kung nagpapadala raw ba ng pera o kaya hindi ba ako nagdududa na baka may iba naman pala siyang ka-relasyon…. Napaka-stereotypical ng tingin nila sa mga binational relationships. Tapos ‘yung sitwasyon pa sa gobyerno. Parang ngayon, hindi mo alam kung sino ba ‘yung may kontrol sa buhay mo eh,” she said. 

(Some of my companions assume my partner isn’t exerting any efforts to see me. Others even ask if he sends me money, or ask if I suspect that he’s seeing someone else already…. Their views on binational relationships are so stereotypical. And then we have this government situation. It’s like you don’t know who’s in control of your life anymore.)

“No one’s really listening to how difficult our situation is,” said Cath, who’s set to marry her German partner. “We just choose to hold on because we’re committed. We choose to stay together.” 

Binational couples ask for understanding and compassion. “Magkakaiba tayo ng emotional at mental threshold. Magkakaiba ‘yung kulay ng bawat relasyon. Hindi pare-pareho ‘yung pinagdadaanan namin, hindi isang template lang ang isang interracial relationship.… Alam naman namin na hindi dapat sisihin ‘yung gobyerno at kailangan namin gawin ‘yung part rin namin pero sana naman mapakinggan ‘yung bawat hinaing namin.” 

(We all have different emotional and mental thresholds. Every relationship is different. Each couple goes through something unique; there is no template to interracial relationships… We do know we shouldn’t blame the government and that we should still do our part, but we just hope people listen to our plight and our requests.)

Liv hoped that the Philippine government could hear their plea, that what they’re all asking for is that their foreign partners be recognized as a family. 

“We understand it’s for our safety but the [Philippine government] can unite us in the Philippines. Our loved ones will not travel to the Philippines just for tourism. Exemption is possible with solemn declaration and proof of relationship. Help us,” Liv said. –