Stuck and undocumented: A transiting OFW’s tough choice

Lian Buan

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Stuck and undocumented: A transiting OFW’s tough choice
Does he return to a country in disarray, or does he stay in another where he has no rights? Whatever choice he makes, the future is uncertain.

MANILA, Philippines – Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in this pandemic have many faces.

One can be that of an undocumented worker stuck in a transit country, caught between two tough choices: return to a home in disarray or stay in a country without any rights? Whatever the choice, the future is uncertain.

Jeremy*, not his real name, is a father of 6, of whom 3 are yet to go to college. He belongs to a family of OFWs, his siblings are in different countries all over the world, and in late 2019 he decided to finally follow that path.

His is a narrative not lost on many Filipinos or on immigration authorities, but nevertheless told in whispers. He would go to a transit country that doesn’t require a visa and apply from there for a visa to his destination country.

Jeremy paid almost P500,000 (US$9,906.08) to an agency to arrange his travel to his transit country, and apply for a visa to his destination country. Upon reaching the transit country, however, he had to pay P1,200 ($23.77) per week to stay in a hotel.

But that’s a small price to pay for a promise that in a few weeks, he would get his visa to cross over to a world where he imagined the grass would be so much greener.

“Alam mo naman ang mga Pilipino, TNT (tago nang tago) na lang. Maka 2 years ka o 3 years ka puwede ka na mag-apply ng residence mo,” Jeremy said.

(You know Filipinos, they would keep on hiding until 2 years or 3 years after, when they can apply for residence.) 

Coronavirus hits

But that plan was scuttled when the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, placed most countries on lockdown, and tightly sealed borders.

Jeremy’s visa was delayed by months, and arrived only after the lockdown. 

Now he’s stuck in a country where he has no rights and where his tourist privileges have already lapsed. He has moved out of the hotel and into an apartment he shares with other Filipinos, paying P1,800 ($35.66) per month for rent and electricity.

All in all, he and his family have spent nearly P600,000 ($11,887.30). 

Stuck in transit, these Filipinos can’t work, except when fellow Filipinos call to say they have a house in need of cleaning or a child who needs baby-sitting.

It’s hard to abandon past sacrifices, and even more difficult to turn his back to the promise of a better future. After surviving a mild stroke before he left the Philippines, Jeremy is burdened by health issues.

“Hindi ko kaya yung pakiramdam ko, minsan taas baba ‘yung blood pressure ko, 3 times akong na-ospital dito, hindi marunong mag-English ang mga doktor,” said Jeremy. (Sometimes I can’t cope with my ailments, my blood pressure drops and rises, I’ve been hospitalized 3 times and doctors don’t know how to speak English.)

“Hindi ako makatulog, nanghihina ako sa umaga, loss of appetite, pinipilit ko na lang kumain,” Jeremy said. (I can’t sleep, I feel weak in the morning, I’ve lost my appetite, I just force myself to eat.)

It is Jeremy’s first time to go abroad. His guts tell him to go home, but how? He’s unable to book flights on his own. 

He will have to count on the Philippine government to repatriate him.

Other Filipinos fear that if Jeremy tries to go home, all of them in the group would be exposed, and they may never reach their destination countries.

As much as Jeremy wants to push through with the original plan, he is uncertain if his destination country would be as accommodating to foreigners after the pandemic. He chooses his health and sanity for now. 

Every day he was growing more desperate, until he reached someone from the Philippine embassy.

But to talk to them, Jeremy had to sneak out of the apartment.

The first thing an embassy official told him? “I understand your situation, so please do not lie.”

Limited help

Roy Señeres Jr of the group OFW Family Club said Jeremy’s best recourse at this point is really to seek help from the government – even though that may mean his record is forever tarnished and might affect future attempts to work abroad.

“I doubt agencies would go the length (to help himfor this, since their own business or livelihood is already seriously affected by the stoppage of deployment,” Señeres told Rappler.

In the Department of Labor and Employment or DOLE’s Department Order No. 212 issued April 8, only “qualified undocumented OFWs” are entitled to a one-time financial asssistance.

Qualified undocumented OFWs are those who:

  • were originally regular or documented workers but for some reason or cause have thereafter lost their regular documented status
  • are not registered with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) or whose contracts were not processed by POEA or the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), but have undertaken actions to regularize their contracts or status
  • are not registered with the POEA or whose contracts were not processed by POEA or the POLO but are active Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) members at the time of availment

Jeremy does not fall into any of these categories. 

“In short, undocumented OFWs are at a disadvantage in this regard,” said Señeres.

“My advice to undocumented OFWs is it depends on their own best and personal judgment taking into account the circumstances and dynamics of their situation. Example: if they are enjoying some sort of subsidy from the host government, then they can stay and wait it out. If not, then they should opt to go home to the Philippines,” said Señeres.

The tough choice

When Jeremy finally flies back to the Philippines, he will be isolated in a quarantine hotel and has to wait for clearance from the government to go home to his family, a process that was delayed by months for thousands of OFWs because the government was not able to immediately print certificates.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has repatriated undocumented OFWs. The DFA says undocumented OFWs can contact their embassies and say they wish to return to the Philippines.

The DOLE, OWWA, and POEA have yet to reply to Rappler’s queries for this story.

Jeremy said he will have to probably go back to his old job as a repairman where he earns P20,000 ($396.24) the most per month.

“Pero may pangarap din ako sa buhay (But I still have dreams in life),” he said, even as he pushes aside the possibility that future attempts to go abroad may be more difficult because of his record.

Jeremy’s dreams, his own or for his family, will have to take a backseat for now, and unfortunately, these will never be counted in the global pandemic toll.

As an undocumented migrant, he may not even get to call himself part of the Philippines’ modern day heroes. But his family will know, and that is enough for now. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.