QUEZON CITY—For a third decade, the Philippine government is attempting to improve its policies, programs and services for returning overseas Filipinos.


This comes as migrant advocates rekindled a history of stunted livelihood programs for overseas workers, government agencies flashed a new set of programs for returnees, and the months-old new Philippine government launched a five-year development plan that envisioned reintegration.


Overseas workers’ return migration currently comes as quiet news depending on circumstances, like a host country’s amnesty program (as in the case of Saudi Arabia, in which undocumented Filipino workers in the Kingdom are beating a June 29 deadline for the 90-day amnesty program and return home). The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration expects an estimated 4,000-5,000 undocumented Filipinos from Saudi Arabia home.


And as the migration agencies’ reintegration programs greeted these returnees from Saudi Arabia, government’s migration managers are trying to make sense of how the Philippines —the world’s most organized migration bureaucracy— can improve this so-called weakest link of the Filipino migration management program.


The Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 mandated programs similar to what the predecessor plan, under former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, contained. These programs include financial literacy, support to enterprises run by overseas migrants and their families, entrepreneurial loans with minimal documentary requirements, and legal assistance services to returnees with labor and welfare cases.

Repatriated OFWs from Saudi Arabia. File Photo
Repatriated OFWs from Syria. File Photo

But these initiatives have been there prior to the presidencies of Aquino and Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippines, a world model on managing the safe, orderly exodus of workers, remains weak in socio-economic reintegration efforts for returning migrants, as civil society advocates for migrants had been saying.


Structurally even, the Labor department’s National Reintegration Center for Overseas Filipino Workers (NRCO) has been an agency with an unclear administrative place. NRCO was then under the Office of the Labor Secretary, then it got lodged under the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), then returned to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). Given Republic Act 10801, called the OWWA Act, NRCO is now lodged under OWWA.


“We hope OWWA is the NRCO’s permanent home,” said advocate Susan Ople, a former DOLE undersecretary for reintegration (a position not anymore present in the DOLE hierarchy).


Discussions on re-engineering migrant reintegration came about given a project by NRCO and the Labor department that’s funded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), called the Enhancing the Reintegration Program for OFWs (ERPO).


A consultation with civil society groups brought together some advocates who had been involved in migration issues, including reintegration, for nearly-to-over two decades.  Their watch of government’s return migration programs, from livelihood loans to assistance to vulnerable returnees, had been helpful to returnees but, as some advocates and analysts said, these programs “never produced anything” substantive.


For one, the number of returnees —both with and without problems from their migration experience— remains unknown. “Do we have a magnitude of the people who have returned and who want to return,” asks Italian Scalabrinian priest Graziano Battistella.


For another, those who return reintegrate on their own. “They don’t need government and non-government organizations,” Battistella told the assembly of CSOs being consulted by NRCO. What he also found as problematic is why returning OFWs are having a hard time connecting with these socio-economic services for OFWs, from government, NGOs and others.


These services had been abundant also in number. Within the DOLE family alone, NRCO and OWWA have their own related programs for returnees, most especially credit programs for entrepreneurial migrant returnees (for example, OWWA’s current Livelihood Development Program for OFWs saw the agency place P2 billion to Landbank of the Philippines and the Development Bank of the Philippines).

President Rodrigo Duterte promises a better future for the country's modern day heroes. Photo by NOEL FLORES

NRCO, for its part, implements programs such as Balik Pinay, Balik Hanapbuhay and Assist WELL —both of which are targeting female returnees.


Other government agencies have their programs assisting returnees: The Department of Social Welfare and Development for overseas human trafficking victims and repatriated undocumented Filipinos in Malaysia; the Department of Foreign Affairs through repatriation of migrants in distress; and the livelihood programs run by as many agencies —Departments of Agriculture, Trade and Industry, Science and Technology, among others— that returning OFWs  can avail of.


But there had been histories of previous programs of government that flopped, especially on the area of livelihood assistance. For example, an OWWA loan program for returnees displaced by the 2008 global financial crisis saw a high non-repayment rate.


That is why, says political scientist Dr. Jorge Tigno of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, government may not be good at handling livelihood programs. “It (government) should not perform those functions and taxpayers may have to shoulder the (financial costs of these livelihood programs’) problems.”


There had also been discontinued efforts. Early into the new millennium, OWWA and civil society groups formed a Philippine Council on OFW Reintegration (PhilCORE). That council even drafted a vision and strategy document for OWWA’s reintegration program. PhilCORE discontinued during the mid-2000s.


At the time PhilCORE was formed, DOLE had two undersecretaries for reintegration: Lucita Lazo and Ople. On the last two years of then Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas’ term under the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, the undersecretary for reintegration was discontinued. Sto. Tomas’ successor Marianito Roque, a former OWWA administrator, did not have an undersecretary for reintegration.


“It (government) should not perform those functions and taxpayers may have to shoulder the (financial costs of these livelihood programs’) problems.” - Dr. Jorge Tigno of the University of the Philippines-Diliman



In 2007, with initial support from IOM, DOLE formed the NRCO to become the agency focused on returning OFWs. NRCO then had been administratively been tossed up to and from the DOLE Secretary’s office to OWWA and back. (Given the OWWA Act, NRCO is now under the tutelage of OWWA.)


The current conundrum now for OWWA and NRCO is harmonizing both agencies’ programs for returnees, says OWWA Director Albert Valenciano. This includes the credit facility of Landbank and DBP.


So given the IOM project for NRCO, and the new Philippine Development Plan that had migrant reintegration as among the three pillars of the current government’s migration-and-development program, what will be new for migrant reintegration?


DOLE Undersecretary Ciriaco Lagunzad wanted a scaling up of the outcomes of enterprise loan programs for returnees, taking note of previous experiences when credit had financed microenterprises that are stunted in growth. “Funds for reintegration should be in areas where we will pay off. We need to innovate in how funds are being lent out,” Lagunzad said.


This veteran advocate Maria Angela Villalba agrees. “We should now move away from microenterprises and head to scalable business operations where government agencies play bigger roles,” says the long-time executive director of the Unlad Kabayan Migrant Services Foundation.


But advocates and returnees themselves have been complaining about the tough business climate in the country. The Philippines is still ranked in the lower rungs among countries in terms of economic competitiveness and conduciveness in business climates, says surveys from international research firms.


However Philippine economic growth had been better than in previous years. That is why Presidents Aquino and Duterte declared in public speeches before OFWs that it is time for Filipinos abroad to return since there are opportunities already at home.


Meanwhile, overseas Filipinos and their families in general had been observed to be still hard up, with limited savings, and still clinging to the economic gains of migration. So returnees, economist Dr. Alvin Ang of Ateneo de Manila University thinks, are having a hard time sustaining the income levels they had abroad upon their return.


“Understand that when they return, ‘I need a regular income flow,’” Ang said. “That problem is something not easy to handle by government.”


It is assets that are missing, says Rex Varona of Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA). “So upon their return, OFWs have no social protection, no assets and no savings. Given these, where does government provide a platform?” (Membership to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. [PhilHealth] and OWWA are mandatory, but not with the Social Security System [SSS]).  


Currently, the landscape to help overseas Filipinos and their families had expanded: from NGOs and OFW-aligned government agencies to bank and non-bank financial institutions, non-migrant management government agencies, to even companies wanting a slice of the resources of overseas Filipinos. But the Philippines remains skilled at managing labor outflow, not yet at maximizing migration’s development potential.


The challenge for a re-engineered migrant reintegration program is to “think beyond migration,” says Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA). That reintegration program, Tigno suggests, “must not be primarily anchored on enterprise building. That (enterprise building) doesn’t really make the entirety of the reintegration program.”


As for Villalba, current-day reintegration efforts for returning migrant workers remain “far from developmental.” “Reintegration efforts must become self-propelling than being assistance-driven; inclusive, and not exclusive that only big firms benefit from remittances.”

OFW Journalism Consortium