Many Filipino migrant workers have reported that their employers had confiscated their passports as security for payment of their recruitment fees and to prevent them from leaving or finding a new job while in their employ.
But this is not exclusive to migrant workers. Foreigners coming to the Philippines have also complained about passport confiscation by agents of the government. This happens when a foreigner, whether knowingly or unknowingly, brings more than the required amount of foreign currency in the country. Aside from being investigated for alleged violation of Section 2530 (f) of the Tariffs and Customs Code, in relation to various BSP Circulars, the amount in excess of the equivalent of $10,000.00 in the foreigner’s possession and his passport are confiscated by the Bureau of Customs (BOC).
While the passport is not an instrument in the commission of any offense, its seizure impairs the individual’s constitutional right to travel. In many cases the request for its release is denied; the passport is turned over to the prosecutor’s office for preliminary investigation of supposed legal infractions. The passport is not immediately released until the chief prosecutor grants approval of the request, when such passport is found to be not part of the necessary evidence.
Confiscating passports became a standard practice under the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID)’s Operations Order No. SBM-2014-002 (“Operations Order”) dated 14 January 2014. Under this order, the BID has the power to deny departure and confiscate the passport of the following persons with derogatory records: (1) any person with a Hold Departure Order (HDO); (2) any person with a Watch List Order (WLO); (3) any person with a Blacklist Order (BLO); and (4) any person with an Alert List Order (ALO). Hence, a person whose name appears in any of the above lists can already be prevented by the BID from traveling for having an incriminating record. Under such order, there is no need for the court’s issuance of a hold-departure order to prevent a person from traveling.
Except for such operations orders, there is no other existing law that authorizes the confiscation of the passport of any person. Under RA No. 8239 (“The Philippine Passport Act of 1996”), a passport is a document issued by the Philippine government to its citizens requesting other governments to allow its citizens to pass freely, and in case of need, to give them lawful aid and protection.
While the said passport law provides for grounds for its denial, cancellation or restriction, there is no provision for its confiscation. Similarly, the passport issued to an alien remains the property of his government; therefore, only such government may confiscate it. In fact, the court merely issues a Hold-Departure Order against an individual, who is accused or convicted of an offense. While there is no Supreme Court case on the issue of passport confiscation, the case relating to the confiscation of driver’s license (Solicitor General, et al. v. The Manila Metropolitan Authority, et al., G.R. No. 102782, 11 December 1991) proves helpful. The Court ruled that the confiscation of a driver’s license as punishment for traffic violations is invalid as the law does not provide for such penalty. Absent any legislation on the matter, passports are not subject to confiscation.
The said operations order No. SBM -2014-002 should be challenged in court. An alien may be subject to the trouble of being under a Watch or Alert List if a disgruntled employee files a complaint with the BID for being an undesirable alien. His passport consequently will be confiscated. While it is disturbing that passport confiscation has become rampant, it is difficult to get the testimony of foreigners who experienced the harassment and extortion (passport is returned in exchange for a sum of money). Many of these aliens decide not to come back to the Philippines, or are in fear that their stay here might be prejudiced if they speak out against these unscrupulous employees.
Atty. Ligon teaches at the DLSU Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business (RVRCOB) and at the DLSU College of Law. A practicing lawyer and managing partner of Ligon Solis Mejia Florendo, he completed the Public Sector Negotiation program at the JFK School of Government Harvard University in 2002. He served as Provincial Board Member of Bulacan from 2001 to 2004 and as National Executive Director of IBP in 1990.