BY TITON MITRA
Sit at any airport in the Philippines and you can palpably feel the pulse of Filipino migration. Overseas workers saying goodbye to their loved ones or returning home to be greeted by an ecstatic family. Every year since 2010, the number of Filipinos leaving the Philippines to work abroad has increased–from 1.4 million in 2010 to 1.8 million in 2015. Today, approximately 10.2 million Filipinos are living and working in more than 200 countries and territories.
With remittances expected to reach USD 28 billion (P1.4 trillion) for 2016, the equivalent of 10% of GDP, the contribution of overseas Filipinos to the Philippine economy is unquestionable. About 20% of all households in the Philippines receive these remittances. Migration has brought immense benefits. One does not have to look far to see the family being supported through remittances that meet their daily needs, pay for their education and health costs, build their houses and provide for the capital to start small businesses.
Filipino migrants also make a considerable contribution to the social and economic landscape in their host countries. They are the thousands of skilled nurses and medical personnel who support the national health services in many countries. They are the seafarers that guide the supertankers around the globe. They are the software engineers whose contributions are largely unsung with the appearance of new technology that make our lives that much easier.
It is why they are and should be called “bagong bayani” (new heroes).
But for each of these successes, there are as many tragic stories that speak to the challenges that migrants and overseas workers face. The many Filipinos that have left unprepared have had to endure trafficking, illegal recruitment, abusive working and living conditions, contract violations, exploitation, discrimination and social exclusion. They are at times deprived of political participation, social protection and retirement benefits. Their children are left to fend for themselves, they suffer broken marriages and disconnection with life in the Philippines. Perhaps less recognized also are the challenges faced by those who choose to finally return. Years of savings are underutilized or squandered because of the lack of entrepreneurial skills and financial literacy. Skills and technologies painfully acquired cannot be productively applied owing to the absence of supporting institutions that can match individuals to the markets. Those that left with skills–teachers or engineers–but de-skilled after years of working as domestic workers, now face no employment prospects on return.
Leaving often isn’t a matter of choice but coming back can be. So what more can be done for our “bagong bayani” so that they are better equipped for a life overseas and importantly, can better share their talents and good fortune on return? Beyond the macro considerations of how to better exploit the windfall in remittances, some localized actions can make a huge difference.
Working with 35 local governments through the Joint Migration and Development Initiative*, UNDP has helped establish Migration Resource Centers and local migration committees to better service departees and returnees. These centers, guided by the local committees, act as a one-stop hub for passporting, recruitment and other pre-deployment processes, but also in facilitating access to health, education, social security services. They also provide investment advice and business development training. These initiatives, at marginal cost relative to the prospective gains, can be replicated in municipalities, towns and cities that are the source of migrants and overseas workers.
To do so will require legislation that would encourage local governments to act more expediently and responsively to the needs of migrants and overseas workers and require also the provision of funding from the national government to supplement any local allocation for the establishment of the Migration Resource Centers.
The 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan can be the anchor for such legislation and it should define specific strategies to ensure that migration can work to the country’s and the overseas Filipinos’ benefit. These include ensuring the protection and welfare of overseas Filipinos and their families, strengthening their engagement in governance including participation in elections, and facilitating the reintegration of repatriated and/or returning overseas Filipinos by offering support services and promoting investment and retirement options. An initiative UNDP supported that could be scaled up is the PESO Sense financial literacy campaign for overseas Filipinos and their families. PESO Sense, through an innovative mobile application, provides saving and budgeting tips, as well as investment and business advice.
Filipinos will take advantage of overseas opportunities that come their way–at times from choice but most often out of necessity. They, the “bagong bayani,” must be given a helping hand so that they can make the most of their opportunity whilst overseas and are the most productive on their return.
Titon Mitra is the Country Director of the United Nations Development Programme in the Philippines.