A passport to a better life

The Embassy here in Malaysia is no different. Every month, there is a consular team that flies to an area in Sabah, Sarawak or Labuan to provide these services to the Filipino communities there.  Unlike other Embassy or Consulate though, our clients in these areas are not the usual OFWs: these Filipinos are mostly illiterate, and they do not have basic documents such as a birth certificates.

The passports allow them to establish their identities and serve as the first step for them to get visas to legalize their stay or even as a way out to better pastures. Without passports, there is no way that their stay can be legalized or that they'll be allowed to leave the country, making them more vulnerable to arrests by authorities and other abuses.  

During our consular missions, the lines can rival that of a blockbuster movie and the crowd can be likened to a well-attended rally. Our processors painstakingly interview each one and correct their applications, while our encoders try to make them write even the first letter of their names. There are also some cases when we have trouble getting fingerprints because their work-worn hands have been chafed or callused.  

Our hearts break as they relate their stories. Most of them are from second or third generation families who fled the then conflict in Mindanao and to earn for their kin. Because they have been hiding from immigration authorities, they have trouble getting their and their kids' births registered. There are applicants who can be the next Filipino beauty queen, business magnate or matinee idol, but cannot speak a word of Filipino or English and cannot write their names. There are elderly ones who ask if they can sign their applications by affixing their thumbprints. Some of them do not know when or where exactly they were born. Some do not even know their real names, or the names of their parents.

Passion for service

They come to our venues by the hundreds and often in truckloads, by families or colleagues, all trying to secure a spot in the line so they can apply for a buku (passport) so they can be jaminan (be given a working visa) by their majikan (employer). Some of them come from faraway areas just to take advantage of the consular team's proximity, instead of them flying to Kuala Lumpur.  

All these get to us. We have shed a tear or two as we interview our applicants.  Most of us have pooled together our own money to allow an applicant to make payment, or be able to go back home. We give food to hungry and tired kids, and the parents who looked like they needed a bite to eat. At the end of the day, we talk about them. And our hearts break even more. (READ: Behind the scenes in the Philippine foreign service)

Much as we wanted to, our equipment and even our personal capacities cannot take in the sheer numbers. There are missions when we turn away people, promising that we will come back in the next few months. They understand, but we know that we have let them down. We fly back to Kuala Lumpur, drained, tired, fulfilled, but their stories remain with us.  

They are the reason why, despite the security situation, we go there every month.  

Mission accomplished

Every mission, we pay courtesy calls to relevant Malaysian authorities. All of them are grateful of our presence, and are cooperative. We get queries from employers themselves, asking us to go to their workplaces to process the passports of their Filipino employees. 

On the basis of an initiative by the Embassy and the then National Statistics Office (now Philippine Statistical Authority), a civil registration drive now compliments our consular missions. Those Filipinos without birth certificates can now apply for a passport, through the use of affidavits executed by people who know them best such as friends, employers or community leaders. This way, they do not just get a passport, but also have their births registered with the PSA. 

We were told that the passports are going to their intended recipients. Some of them are already having their employers get their work visas. Some of them are now thinking of going home to Mindanao. There are also cases where the applicant applied for a job in the Middle East, and is now working there.  

The lines are still there though. We now think of it as a happy problem – people are satisfied with our services, thus, they come to us. There are still issues and concerns, such as reaching out to more people or sparing prospective applicants from individuals giving misinformation or misrepresenting the Embassy for money. Each consular mission gives us new perspectives, new ways of doing things to help these Filipinos when our permanent presence cannot do otherwise.  

We like to think that we’re giving them a new chance of life when we tell them, “suda, terima kasih” (Your passport application is finished, thank you). Their smiles, the occasional tear in their eyes or the tight hugs we receive are testament to those. As they walk away, we wish that their passports do get to them on time, and that these documents would not just affirm their identity, but give them a sense of worth – and hopefully, a better life. – Rappler.com