The people bringing Filipinos home for the holidays
Arrival of repatriated Filipinos from China due to COVID-19. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
More than a quarter-million Filipinos, mostly migrant workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, have returned to the Philippines since the first rescue flight was organised from Wuhan, China in February. Another hundred thousand Filipinos are expected to arrive by the end of 2020. Overseas workers are considered modern-day heroes in the Philippines because they contribute to the economy and improve the lives of their families through remittances. Behind every Filipino who has safely returned to the Philippines, there is a team of public servants working for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila that is orchestrating the repatriation activities of the 94 Philippine embassies and consulates around the world. These unsung heroes keep the social fabric of the country intact by bringing people home, a role that is especially important during the Christmas holidays. Like the migrant Filipinos whom they serve, the personal lives, work, and mobility of these public servants have also been impacted by COVID-19.
At the core of the repatriation programme is Armand, a 30-year-old lawyer who assumed his role as a principal assistant in the office in March 2020. He analyses global affairs and provides recommendations to decision-makers about which rescue flights to mount and prioritise. While his job entails reuniting families, he ironically lives far away from his own family. His mother is a nurse in the United States, and in the past 18 years, he was only able to spend two Christmases with her. Early this year, he was finally able to schedule a trip to visit his parents; however, that was put on hold due to COVID-19. Now, he must also spend Christmas apart from his family because he is going on a goodwill tour to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Even before COVID-19, it was challenging for many Filipinos to reunite with loved ones living abroad; the pandemic simply adds another layer of difficulty. This is especially true for the many Filipino migrants who work in the healthcare sector, on the front lines of the pandemic. While COVID-19 forced many migrant workers to be repatriated and to return to their loved ones, it also forces others, like Armand, to remain parted from their families. COVID-19 created his new role as repatriation supervisor, which has increased his workload and made it even more challenging for him to come home. However, for Armand, the price he must pay to serve his country is nothing compared to the woes of overseas Filipinos, who may be prevented from returning home for decades.
The Philippine government not only repatriates the living but also the remains of deceased Filipinos. Suzette, a 41-year-old nurse, transferred to the office in 2017 and took on the mantle of ‘undertaker’ specialising in the shipment of remains back to the Philippines. She is assigned to the busy desk of Saudi Arabia, which has the highest population of Filipino migrants of any country in the world. Additionally, repatriating remains from Saudi Arabia is always a race against the clock because of the Kingdom's policy of burying the dead without asking for the consent of the next of kin. Moreover, the body cannot be exhumed once it is six feet under. Thus, she is obligated to work long hours to ensure that the families can see their deceased loved ones again and bury them in their home country, sometimes after decades of separation. Besides, the travel restrictions brought by COVID-19 make the logistics more challenging and more sensitive to time, further increasing her workload.
Her work is important to her because she understands how it feels to lose someone and she wants to alleviate the pain of the bereaved by fulfilling her job. However, the work demand makes it challenging to fulfil roles within her family. To spend Christmas with her family in the province, she must ‘deposit’ time by foregoing days off and leveraging it for her leave request. Alas, her free time was forsaken when she signed up for public service, and she knows that, given the amount of work that must be done, she will probably not see her family this year. COVID-19 has obstructed the mobility of not just the living, but also the dead, as well as the people who work to bring them home.
Some government employees have been directly impacted by COVID-19. Remy, 53, maintains a positive outlook even after testing positive for the coronavirus. For her, self-isolation is a welcome break from forced socialisation. However, COVID-19 has denied her the ability to travel, one of the most rewarding aspects of the job for her, and she anxiously awaits medical clearance to travel to Prague, where she will be posted. Apart from interrupting her travel plans, the coronavirus threatens her economic independence because she does not have a partner to fall back on in these precarious times. She lives alone in her condominium unit and depends on the network she had developed as her support system in tumultuous moments. Save for not seeing her niece in her home province, Remy claims her Christmas plans to be unaffected by the pandemic. On the other hand, she worries about the pending work she left at the office, recognising that inaction can have serious consequences for Filipinos in need of help abroad. The pandemic gives even the toughest Foreign Service personnel a run for their money, making it difficult for them to work and live.
‘Movement only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to’, said novelist Pico Iyer. COVID-19 has brought perspective to mobility; causing many of us to think about what we deeply care about and find home, particularly during the holiday season. Most Filipinos work abroad to provide for their loved ones at home, while at the same time remaining separated from that home. In the same way, these three civil servants reorganise their lives to serve their country, sacrificing family time and holidays in the process. Migration management is already complex; COVID-19 further complicates the bureaucratic processes required to move people around the globe. They are not merely facilitating the movement of people from one place to another but rebuilding ‘home’ for a nation ravaged by the health crisis. The Christmas season is a celebration of the three important things among Filipinos: faith, family, and festivity. It is a chance to get a piece of home and make it an inspiration to overcome life's hurdles, whether at home or abroad. As long as Filipinos move overseas in search of better lives, there will always be Armand, Suzette, and Remy to make their homebound travel possible and their holiday extra special.
Jim Jimeno is a Foreign Service Officer at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. He currently serves as a principal assistant at the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs. He is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a Global Shaper from the Manila Hub. He is interested in the nexus of migration, health, and security.