Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Filipino Deported

i received "advanced notice" of my friend Jake Aguilar's article which is now posted on Philstar.com. His experiences abroad have given me a better perspective of protocol regarding deportation in foreign countries. I learn a lot from his articles.

I am posting (with his consent) his article. Credit is due Prof. Jerick Aguilar and Philstar.com where the article first appeared.

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A Filipino Deported
By Jerick T. Aguilar
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

At around this time last year, I was deported – and it was not for the first time. I was then based in Tunisia and found out that there were direct flights from Tunis to “Serbia and Montenegro” so it interested me to visit this part of the former Yugoslavia. Upon my arrival at the international airport, I was so excited to travel again and check out at least two cities, the capital Belgrade up north and coastal Kotor down south. (FYI, the old city of Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage site, naturally surrounded by lush green mountains and clear blue waters. If you’ve seen the latest James Bond Movie “Casino Royale,” then you know exactly what I mean).

At the immigration counter, the officer had a look at my visa and verified the validity of my Philippine passport (which I earlier and later on flaunted to other tourists and residents in the queue). He then reached for his entry stamp, marked it on my visa, and said, “Welcome to Serbia.” After spending a few days in the capital and its outskirts, I went back to the airport (they said it was the same airport for international and domestic flights) for my trip to Tivat, another city with the airport closest to Kotor. At that time, I wondered why I had to go through the same immigration counter and was surprised that the officer put an exit stamp on the same visa. But I just shrugged this off as one of their policies.

When the plane finally landed at the “local” airport, everybody breezed their way passed the immigration counters – except me. An officer asked for my passport and kept on turning its pages back and forth. Instead of reaching for the entry stamp, he looked up to me and asked, “Where is your visa to Montenegro?”. Montenegro?”, I replied in bewilderment, “My Serbia and Montenegro visa is right there,” pointing to the page he was on. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you need a separate visa to enter Montenegro. Montenegro had declared independence from Serbia a few months ago.”

And then everything else started to make sense – the immigration officer at Nikola Tesla International Airport left out “and Montenegro” when he welcomed me to his country, I was supposed to fly domestically but had to pass by the immigration counter again, and my single-entry tourist visa to Serbia was again stamped upon my exit. It then occurred to me that I was in another country and I didn’t have the visa to enter it.

“So can I apply for a visa here?,” was my turn to ask. “Sorry,” he said for the second time, “you need to get it at an embassy or consulate.” “But there is no official representation of Montenegro where I came from [for God’s sake, you just declared independence!],” was my discrete way of telling him to give me a visa upon arrival as in other countries. “Sorry,” for the third time he replied, “but we don’t give visas yet at the airport.” (They just declared their independence alright!)

After some futile arguing and empty threatening to report them to the Philippine Embassy (which I knew was not present in Montenegro but I also knew that they knew nothing of it), I was escorted to their detention room to wait for the next flight back to Belgrade. They confiscated my passport and exchanged it with a police escort. A few hours later with my passport on his left hand and my left shoulder on his right, he brought me to my seat on the plane and gave my passport to the pilot. In short, I ended up NOT visiting Kotor (and just watching “Casino Royale” all over again).

I thought the police escort was going to be with me on the flight so I gave a huge sigh of relief when he got out of the plane before departure. But as soon as the aircraft touched down in Belgrade, another escort was waiting for me to accompany me to a detention room. “But I have a visa to Serbia,” I remarked when he showed up inside the cabin, “and where is my passport?”. “It’s with me,” he replied, “but your visa to Serbia is no longer valid.” “But it’s not yet expired and I’m now in Serbia,” to which he said, “there’s already an exit stamp on here and it was for a single-entry only so now you’re in Serbia illegally.”

“Not again,” I told myself, “not for the second time.” A few years earlier, I went on vacation in Eastern Europe. I took the flight to Sofia, Bulgaria then took the train to visit Romania. From Bucharest, I took the train to visit the adjacent Hungary. Since my return flight was from Sofia and it was expensive to fly to there from Budapest, I took the train back from Hungary which had to pass through Romania.

The train stopped on the border between these two countries and immigration officers went inside as standard operating procedure to ask for everyone’s passport and/or visa including mine. I mentioned to them that I was going to Sofia so I showed them my double-entry tourist visa to Bulgaria. They said I still needed a visa to enter Romania so I turned the page on my passport to the one that I had. “But,” the officer said, “there’s already an exit stamp on here and it was for a single-entry only so now you’re in Romania illegally.”

Déjà vu it was. I was told to get out of the train and asked to stay in their detention room. (And yes, they took my passport and gave me a police escort). It was winter that time and I can still remember the bitter cold (there was no heating – I mean, why spend money and consume electricity for detainees?) as I was instructed to wait for the next train back to Hungary and head straight to the airport upon arriving in the capital.

At the international airports of Budapest, Tivat, and Belgrade, I was considered a deportee so I had a police escort with me all the time (protocol, they said) out of an unsubstantiated fear that I might escape and trade my current and comfortable life to a new and more comfortable one in their country. There had to be someone with me constantly that I also had to be accompanied on the few occasions I went to the restroom. Looking at the glass half-full, I just thought to myself that I was a VIP and this guy standing right behind me while I pee was my bodyguard.

When it came to board the plane, the experience was more than harrowing. My bodyguard, I mean, escort and I were the first to arrive at the departure lounge but the last to enter the jetway. While waiting to board, all the other passengers were looking at me and I somehow heard all of them whispering into each other’s ears that I was an illegal worker in their country who got caught and deserved to go back where I came from. And as the police escort and I entered the plane, their eyes met mine with the usual suspicion and depreciation.

Terrible personal instances like these need not be written and made public but rather kept secret or at least shared within an intimate circle of family and friends. But I am having it published nonetheless because I am only one of a great number of Filipinos who have faced deportation and only one of an estimated three million(!) of them who have entered a foreign country illegally (or have been illegally overstaying) and therefore face deportation.

These two incidents reminded me of several times I met Filipinos overseas who openly told me that they are irregular workers (as a side note, it is now being widely accepted to refrain from using the word “illegal” to describe them as they have not committed a “crime” against a person and/or property) and trustingly recounted how they succeeded to enter and/or stay in a foreign country without the necessary documentation.

One was a “kababayan” in Brussels who had been deported thrice. But this, or make that, “these” three times didn’t stop him from coming back to Belgium again and again – with different passports and through different points of entry in Europe each time. Another was in Munich who kept on going there and getting deported until he had sold all of his properties in his province, got a visa from Hong Kong to enter Italy, and then took the train to Germany. For these Filipinos and millions more, they would rather risk getting jailed in another country than risk staying unemployed or underemployed in the Philippines.

They say that one is enough, two is too much, three is dangerous. Getting deported twice already felt like being in jeopardy to me. But I have also been lucky twice. I was neither handcuffed nor jailed, and I had a return ticket which only necessitated a change of date. For unlucky overseas Filipinos, they only had the money to spend for a one-way ticket so they didn’t wait in a detention room but in a prison – not for hours but for days, weeks, months, or even years – until someone (or our government) pays for their ticket back home.

I was a deportee twice but this doesn’t prevent me from traveling. For most overseas Filipinos who have been deported once, twice, or even more, this also doesn’t prevent them from leaving the Philippines yet again and trying their luck to enter the same or another country, overstay, and find reasonable work there. After getting deported for the second (and hopefully last) time, it now seems petty that I make sure I get a visa wherever I go whereas they make sure that they don’t get caught wherever they might be.