In God we trust: Religious beliefs and sensemaking of Filipino undocumented migrants in the Netherlands
Distribution of grocery packs and vouchers in Amsterdam. Photo by Lalaine Siruno, June 2021.
Kudkod. This Tagalog word translates to grate, scrape, or scrub. Winnie (all names are aliases) explains that the term is used because cleaning houses requires making every surface spotless. Isabel adds that the work is no ordinary household chore; it is so strenuous that she ‘gets drenched in sweat’ in no time. In Myrna’s estimation, ‘money is easy to come by in the Netherlands, but your physical strength is your capital’.
Like many other undocumented Filipino migrants in the Netherlands, Winnie, Isabel and Myrna work informally in the domestic sector. They do cleaning, babysitting, ironing, cooking, and gardening work, and earn between €10 and €15 per hour. While it is impossible to have precise numbers as undocumented migrants are in fact uncountable, it has been reported that there may be up to 30,000 Filipino migrants with irregular status in the Netherlands. Most of them are overstayers with expired tourist visas or au pair residence permits.
‘Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa’
This is a popular Filipino saying and it loosely translates to ‘God gives mercy to those who help themselves’. Economic reasons or the desire to provide for the family’s material needs are usually cited as the primary motivation for migration. Such motivations, however, cannot be framed in economic terms alone. Certain life course events also influence migration decisions, including decisions to take the path of irregular migration.
Karina shares that when she separated from her husband, she needed to find a way for her three children to survive. When she was presented with an opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, her decision-making process was rooted in her faith. She said, ‘I prayed and asked for a sign from God. I knew I was taking a risk but I was certain I would be under God’s protection. I’m sure God wanted me to be a good parent, and I would not be here if God didn’t want me to be here.’ She left the Philippines 12 years ago. Although it was not easy, it was not a decision she regretted making.
A community leader explains that ‘Filipinos are very religious and very hardworking. We will do everything for our family. Our faith is very strong but we know that’s not enough. This is why we sacrifice. We come to this country armed with prayers and determination to succeed no matter what.’
Seek and you shall find
Among overseas Filipinos, it is common knowledge that if you arrive at a new place without knowing a soul, the place to find kababayans (compatriots) is the church – roughly 86% of the total population of the Philippines identify as Roman Catholic. While the practice of religion is in decline in the Netherlands, this is not reflected among the Filipino migrant community which remains very active in its religious practice.
One of the biggest challenges of being undocumented is the inability to travel back and forth between the Netherlands and the Philippines. Tessa shares how life as an undocumented migrant was initially very difficult. The prolonged separation from her family causes bouts of sadness, however, she says, ‘after 22 years, I’ve become used to it. I’m happy especially when I’m with my churchmates because they are my family here.’ Her friend Fatima echoes this: ‘Yes, the church community is my family. On weekdays I work and on Saturdays and Sundays, I join activities in the church.’
Preventing irregular migration is one of the pillars of the Dutch comprehensive migration agenda and the state has adopted legislation to limit access to social protection mechanisms. Despite these instruments of exclusion, however, the church and the religious community remain a refuge where every person regardless of migration status is welcome and equal in the eyes of God. As Carmen puts it, ‘There’s no illegal person, we’re all the same. It’s only paper, with or without, we are all human beings. Our real residence is with the Lord. We’re all tourists here.’
In God we trust
Undocumented migrant domestic workers were one of the groups that were most severely affected by government-imposed COVID-19 lockdown measures in the first few months of the pandemic. Many homeowners closed their doors because of social distancing regulations, health anxieties, and financial difficulties. The no-work, no-pay arrangement meant that many undocumented migrant domestic workers suffered a significant reduction in their incomes while at the same time being hard-pressed to continue sending financial remittances to their family members in the Philippines. Did it make the undocumented Filipinos want to go back? It seems not. Ricky explains, ‘This is just a trial; it’s part of life. I’ve been here 8 years, I’m not going to give up now. It’s not the right time yet. God will provide.’
And Ricky was not mistaken. The Filipino community mobilised efforts and partnered with local organisations to support the vulnerable. Once a week between April 2020 until September 2021, undocumented migrants could go to a church in Amsterdam and The Hague to receive a €15 grocery voucher and other basic supplies. Medical consultations and vaccinations were also made available. In the hour of need, the church and the community once again provided sanctuary. One migrant shared, ‘The police know we’re here every Sunday, so many undocumented migrants in one place, but we’re not committing any crime – so why be afraid?’
Religious beliefs play an important role in the sensemaking of the Filipino migration experience – from migration decisions to everyday life and integration, and even plans for return and reintegration. As the accounts above illustrate, however, notions of fate and destiny and convictions about a compassionate and benevolent God do not only serve as coping strategies. Rather, these beliefs also shape individual identities and reinforce narratives of self-sacrifice and risk-taking for a better life. There is no intention to romanticise or idealise irregular migration, but the stories shared here show how formidable religious beliefs, together with a strong family orientation, give Filipino undocumented migrants the aspirations and the capability to rise against the invisibility and the vulnerabilities imposed by their irregular migration status.
Lalaine Siruno is a migrant from the Philippines currently based in Maastricht in the Netherlands where she is a PhD Fellow at the United Nations University-MERIT/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. The narratives presented in this article are part of the data she is collecting for her research project on irregular migration and human development. She wishes to extend her gratitude and dedicates this piece to all her research participants and the Filipino community of volunteers in the Netherlands.