Wednesday, February 18, 2009


As part of its declared intensified campaign to prevent Filipinos from becoming victims of illegal recruitment and human trafficking, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) has recently barred 133 Filipinos from leaving the country through the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA) on suspicion that they are “tourist workers.”

“Tourist workers” is the term being used to describe Filipinos going to countries like Singapore, Malaysia and more recently to Dubai, using only tourist visas, but whose real purpose is to obtain employment.

While the avowed objective of the BI is laudable, the restriction of citizens’ mobility by preventing them from leaving the country may be constitutionally questionable as a violation of the right to travel.

Article 3, Section 6 of the Constitution provides as follows:

The liberty of abode and of changing the same within the limits prescribed by law shall not be impaired except upon lawful order of the court. Neither shall the right to travel be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law. (italics supplied)

The above provision clearly recognizes the right of every citizen to travel or move from one place to another. And movement from one place to another includes travel within the Philippines and travel from the Philippines to other countries. In the 1989 case of Marcos v. Manglapuz – which involved the right of the Marcoses to bring the remains of deposed President Ferdinand Marcos to the Philippines – the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to travel does not include returning to the Philippines from other countries.

Every person, therefore, has the right to leave the country freely. In totalitarian regimes, like in the former Soviet Union, East Germany or in present-day North Korea, there is no such right of mobility. Citizens of these countries could not freely move from one place to another, much less leave their countries, to prevent them from bonding together and form groups to overthrow the government. The intention is to stifle or suppress dissent.

The only limitations on the exercise of such right are (1) lawful court order or (2) law, in the interest of national security, public safety or public health. Thus, a court order can validly restrain an accused or convicted person from leaving the country by means of a hold departure order, or an administrative regulation from the Department of Labor can prevent the deployment abroad of domestic workers pursuant to the constitutional mandate to protect labor as held in Philippine Service Exporters, Inc. v. Drilon.

In the absence of a valid court order or law that authorizes the restriction on the right to travel, the BI’s program of preventing so-called “tourist workers” from leaving the country suffers serious doubts as to its validity or legality. Mere suspicion that these persons are not really going to the intended country of destination as tourists is not enough. There must be clear standards or guidelines provided by law to establish that these persons are indeed seeking employment abroad under the pretext of going on a tourist visit, otherwise the program will be prone to abuses and its reach would extend even to legitimate tourists who will clearly suffer great inconveniences.

Finally, it bears noting that our countrymen are going at great lengths to find decent employment that our government has miserably failed to provide. These 133 people who may have been unlawfully deprived of their constitutional right to travel probably invested their life’s savings, pawned their valuables, mortgaged their homes, or borrowed money they could ill-afford to pay just to realize the promise of better money abroad and free them from the clutches of poverty, only to be turned back by agents of a government that has proven inept at providing decent-paying jobs to its citizens.

At a time when the unemployment rate is 7.4%, we cannot blame our countrymen for taking the short cuts in finding livelihood for their families. Unless our government gets serious in the business of governance no amount of regulation or enforcement measures can prevent this continuously growing diaspora. If government cannot provide a better alternative, it is probably better off allowing these determined individuals to find their destinies abroad and instead put in place an effective mechanism to protect them against abuses and other wrongdoings.

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