Covid-19 crisis takes away migration option for millions in Philippines

By Sara Gomez Armas

Manila, Jul 31 (efe-epa).- Jonathan Amarata, aged just 18 and with two children to take care of, lost his job as a security guard in Manila when a lockdown was declared due to the Covid-19 epidemic in March. He had migrated to the capital from Cebu Island a few months ago.

In the absence of opportunities across rural areas in the Philippines, migrating to the capital, where the country’s economic activity is concentrated, and even abroad, has traditionally been almost the only alternative for millions of low-income Filipinos.

Most of them take up jobs as domestic workers, nannies, masons, hauliers or sailors, but many have lost their employment because of the novel coronavirus crisis.

The country too has been hit, given that workers abroad support large families back home and foreign remittances amount to as much as $33.5 billion per year, which amounts to around 10 percent of its GDP.

“I’ve been slumping around Manila for over four months, hoping to be able to go home to my family. I was the only one who made money and now we have nothing,” Jonathan told Efe, while waiting for a bus to take him — and several others in a similar situation — to a hostel to the north of Manila.

There he will wait for the authorities to charter a flight to fly people like him to Cebu, after the aviation sector was temporarily shut down due to the crisis.

For the last few days, Jonathan slept at the Jose Rizal football stadium in Manila, where the government asked those from the provinces who have been recently unemployed to gather as to arrange their return home.

Authorities were expecting some 7,500 people, but 2,000 more than expected turned up. They all had to spend several days in an overcrowded stadium, in unhygienic conditions and without maintaining social distance.

At least eight people from the gathering tested positive in the rapid tests carried out before their return, thus increasing the risk of the virus spreading in the provinces.

Some 8,000 people have already returned to the islands of Bisayas and Mindanao, but Jonathan still remained in Manila since Cebu was still under strict lockdown.

“We have no guarantee that we can return to Cebu and we have no family in Manila to help us,” said Jonathan, who, besides living in fear of contracting the coronavirus, distrusts the authorities.

He has been lodged at three different hostels in Manila already at different times, and even had to sleep two nights inside a bus.

Meanwhile, Rowena Reyes, 35, waited with her meager belongings to enter the Army bus that would take her to the same hostel as Jonathan. She too hoped to be able to return to Cebu, where her 13-year-old daughter awaited her.

“I worked as a domestic worker in several houses, but I lost my job because with the lockdown I couldn’t go to work and the house where I was staying kicked me out because I couldn’t pay,” said Reyes, who, like many others like her, has had to sleep outdoors for more than one night.

Beyond the borders of the Philippines, in almost every corner of the world — from Saudi Arabia to Norway, from Singapore and China to New Zealand — hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have lost their means of livelihood.

The Philippines is among the top 10 countries in the world with the largest migrant population, amounting to more than 8 million people. Some 3.8 million of them are permanent workers based in another country and 3.4 million are temporary employees, while 1.55 million work illegally abroad, according to the Department of Employment.

The government has embarked on the arduous task of repatriating all those who have lost their jobs.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has repatriated more than 106,000 citizens, 43 percent of them sailors. It is estimated that by the end of the year the figure could reach 700,000, most of them from the Middle East.

“The DFA had to embark on a repatriation program of such magnitude which the country has never seen before. Overseas Filipinos are returning not by the hundreds but by the hundreds of thousands,” remarked Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sarah Arriola earlier this week.

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