- A foreign affairs official said overseas Filipino workers are now exempt from the outbound travel ban
- But anecdotal evidence suggests scores of Filipinos had skirted the restrictions already
Filipino migrant workers stranded in the country due to travel bans imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have now been allowed to return to Hong Kong and Macau, a Philippine official said on Tuesday.
Brigido Dulay, the Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, said overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) were now exempted from the outbound travel ban, but would be subjected to "certain procedural formalities".
These include signing a "written declaration that they know the risk", presidential spokesman Salavador Panelo said, without going into details " except to add that the government "will always protect and provide assistance to all, whether here or abroad" regardless of the declaration.
A two-way travel ban on mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau was imposed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on February 2. Taiwan was added to the list on February 10.
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Panelo suggested that "persistent requests from the OFWs themselves" had prodded Duterte into lifting travel restrictions on Hong Kong and Macau, which were only put in place because "the president is concerned about their safety."
Philippine officials lifted the travel ban on Taiwan on February 14, after reports Taipei had threatened the work visas of some 150,000 Filipinos on the island.
While they were in force, the restrictions on travel to Hong Kong prevented as many as 15,000 newly hired domestic helpers and 10,000 holidaying OFWs from travelling to the city, according to the Society of Hong Kong Accredited Recruiters of the Philippines. Other estimates suggested up to 30,000 Hong Kong workers were stranded in Manila.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests scores of Filipino professionals were able to skirt the ban " which still restricts inbound travel for non-Filipinos from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.
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After being stranded in Manila for six days, Glyde Ababa decided to buy two return tickets to Kuala Lumpur for himself and his fiancee. The couple spent the night in the Malaysian capital before boarding a flight to Hong Kong, where the 39-year-old works as a customer service officer at Global Exchange in the city's airport.
"Had we not done what we did, it's possible we would still be stranded in Manila," he said.
"I spent about HK$4,000 (US$515) which was double the one-way budget airline fare from Manila to Hong Kong for my fiancee and myself. But I didn't mind because both of us really wanted to get back to work here."
Ababa was not alone in trying to find ways around the travel ban. Edward Borja, who teaches at several of Hong Kong's international schools and helped lead a loose coalition of Filipino groups who pushed for the restrictions to be lifted, said that he had friends who had managed to return to the city.
"I know of at least two people who both work at Cathay Pacific's maintenance department and two other teachers in international schools who found ways to evade the travel ban," he said.
Overseas workers contribute more than US$30 billion in remittances every year, comprising about 9 per cent of the Philippines' GDP.
Additional reporting by Raissa Robles, Juanito Concepcion, Bloomberg
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