Permanence Of Absence

by Juan L. Mercado

“National Migrants Sunday” will be marked February 17. The commission on “Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People”, 27 years back, set first Sunday of Lent to focus attention  on a tiny but growing stream of migrants.

Today, a quarter of the Filipino workers are scattered in over 193 countries. “Labor migration has been called a civil religion” says Asian Century Institute, “An ever-growing force, international shows few signs of retreat”, adds New York Times.

This rite jogs our memory on boarding Southern China Airlines flight 309 for Ulan Bataar in Mongolia with a Beijing  stopover. Eight seats away, was a nanny, with two Chinese kids in tow.  “Filipina” her simple T-shirt-cum-jeans, braids and accent proclaimed.

We chatted in Beijing ’s airport corridors. She was from Pampanga. Her mistress was visiting relatives, pointing to the bejeweled matron striding ahead. They’d visit the Great Wall,  Forbidden City, with the kids.

An airport official urges us to move along, Our petite Filipina waves goodbye and blends into the queues. What would be the stories from  an estimated one of every 10 Filipinos now abroad?

“Roughly 3,752 Filipinos leave daily,” Viewpoint noted “That’s 28 times the first clutch of timid migrants who left five decades back…The  ‘youth bulge’ is evident. Many are between 25 and 44 years old. And 36 out of every 100 have a college degree.”

Filipinos serve as air traffic controllers in Dubai, engineers in Libya, maids in Hongkong, illegal handymen in Saudi Arabia to musicians on luxury cruise vessels plying the Carribean.

“You don’t have to answer this, Captain,” a foreign recruiter told the Filipino 747 pilot. “You’re number seven in seniority at your airline. Why sign up with us?”   “Simple,” our high-school classmate replied. “You pay me five times more. And it’s all tax-free.”  The recruiter beamed. “Sign here, Captain.”

The number of international migrants doubled in the past quarter-century to more than 200 million. In Latin America, Filipinos, Indonesians and Bangladeshis spearhead migrants from  Asia. Filipino emigration rate is double that of  Vietnam.

European Union peg illegal Filipinos or TNTs (tago ng tago) at 113,000. About two percent of U.S. illegals are  Filipinos.  There are 3.4 million Filipinos, naturalized as Americans. That includes our five kids.

“We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez,” President Barrack Obama said in his State of the Union Address. When Hurricane Sandy plunged NYU Langone  Medical Center into darkness, the 56-year-old registered nurse—  born, raised and educated here — organized staff to carry 20-at-risk babies eight flights of stairs with only cell phone glow to light the way.  Sanchez sat between Mrs. Obama and the vice president’s wife, Jill Biden.

International migrants are on track to remit an increase of 6.5 percent in savings to their families, says World Bank in it’s “Migration and Development Brief 19”.  The biggest flows are to Asia and  North Africa. Filipinos are number 3 among the top 10 recipients of migrant remittances. China is No.2 and Mexico No. 4.

Melanie Reyes of  Miriam College has, perhaps, done the more comprehensive review of studies on the effects of migration on children left behind. About 9 million (27%) of the young fall into this bracket.

“Global parenting” is done by phone, internet or Facebook.  But man does not live by padala alone. Children feel abandoned, specially by migrant mothers. And seven out of 10 OFWs are female.

On the emotional and psychological levels, the kids “tend to be more angry, apathetic, confused —   and afraid.” A “permanence of absence” mindset, like that of orphans, emerges. And if the eldest  child is a girl, the burden of performing a mother’s tasks is strapped on her.

Padalas generate a vicious circle of migration. They underwrite education of family members in preparation for their emigration .And thus is generated a “migration mindset” — people’s first thought is to emigrate.

When large numbers want to scram, pressure on government to implement reforms eases. The elite are only “too happy to feel no domestic political pressure to give up privileges such as tax evasion and corruption.                          

Asian Century Institute adds: Former US  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to President Benigno Aquino “Let’s be very honest here. Too many  (migrants) feel they cannot progress in their own country. Too many of them feel that the elite in business and politics basically call the shots,

“And there’s not much room for someone who’s hardworking, but not connected. Too many of them believe that even if they get the best education they can, that there won’t be an opportunity for them. And so they take that education and help build someone else’s economy, very often here in the  U.S.

A country that cannot hold on to its best and brightest compromises its future. Such countries find they must reinvent themselves,  as nations beyond borders. Migration drains the  Philippines  of essential skills, Asian Development Bankj  cautions. Spoon- feeding individuals and governments puts off tough reforms.

“Relying on remittances – and the prospect of going abroad one day – can alienate,”  Jason de Parle writes in New York Times. That alienation finds its expression in song.

In Cape Verde, the song “Sodade” conveys, “longing for my island.” Filipino migrants in Dubai belt out “It’s So Painful, Big Brother Eddie,” a 1980’s Tagalog classic “that immortalizes every Filipino migrant’s fears.”


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