The Filipino diaspora
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - October 1, 2020 - 12:00am

We see a lot of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in almost every corner of the world — serving beer in London pubs, selling perfume in Duty Free stores in the UAE, cleaning hotels in Qatar, or playing the saxophone in cruise ships in Greece. Some pick grapes in the sprawling vineyards of Italy or belt out Freddie Aguilar’s Anak in hotels in Indonesia.

OFWs – more than 12 million – are indeed all over the world, forced to leave Manila to find gainful opportunities in distant shores.

These days, however, their poignant narratives have changed but it’s just as sad. Now, many of them are returning to the Philippines in a disturbing trend of reverse migration, no thanks to the global recession brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic circumstances in their host countries.

This is what I saw in Lebanon during last week’s repatriation flight to fetch 317 distressed OFWs in the West Asian country, now on the brink of economic collapse.

While many of them are happy to be home, they only returned because they have no other choice. What was once their source of dollars is no longer the same because of an economic implosion. What was once their land of milk and honey is now a place of uncertainty.

Our kababayans are sad that times have changed; sadder that they have no other choice but to come home. While they are happy to be reunited with their loved ones, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over their heads because they have no jobs here.


At least 195,224 Filipinos have been repatriated since the outbreak of COVID-19 in February.

Repatriation is ongoing and there will be more flights. I salute the men and women of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs for the work that they do and the risks they take to bring home our kababayans.

I’ve seen them work during our recent flight to Lebanon – tired, sleep-deprived, anxious of COVID-19 and yet working in the service of the Filipino.

Team Beirut was composed of presidential assistant on foreign affairs Robert Borje, DFA’s principal assistants at the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Armand Dulay and Lorenz Dantes, and Diane Bartolome of the Office of Strategic Communications and Research.

Props also to the Philippine Embassy in Beirut, led by chargé d’affaires Ajeet-Victor Panemanglor.

Of course, repatriation is just one part. Now that the OFWs are back home, DOLE and related agencies need to ensure they are able to work here, not forced to leave again just as soon as they return.

The government needs to make sure the economy will be able to absorb them.

History of the Filipino diaspora

The Filipino diaspora accelerated in the 1970s when dictator Ferdinand Marcos institutionalized migration to stimulate the economy.

But it was meant to be just a stop gap measure to arrest economic decline and address the dollar shortfall. Many went to the Middle East because of the oil boom at the time.

Yet, labor migration has been steadily increasing because of high unemployment and poor living standards in the country.

Every administration maintains that the government does not  have a labor export policy. Yet, at least one million Filipinos leave the country every year.

Changing their narratives

To leave by choice is one thing but it is heartbreaking to be forced to leave one’s home country to survive. Every OFW I encountered abroad said they have had no other choice but to work in distant lands to earn a decent living for loved ones back home.

Many are second and third generation OFWs, following the footsteps of their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles before them.

Decades have passed and still Filipinos are forced to toil in distant lands, enduring the hardships and the indescribable pangs of loneliness in a foreign place.

We are not making progress as a nation if this goes on and on. Let’s not make the world the sweatshop for Filipinos. Instead, let’s give them decent jobs here. If they are to leave their home country, let it be by choice and not because they need to escape the hard life in the Philippines.

Let’s grow our economy so there will be enough jobs for everyone. We need to build local industries, enable a labor environment where salaries are competitive and enough for a typical Filipino family to live comfortably, provide free quality education so they don’t have to look for extra cash to send their children to private schools with exorbitant tuition, and provide quality health services to help them feel safe in their own country.

It’s time to change the narrative of each and every OFW. While the government hails them as modern day heroes – and rightly so – authorities should not be content by the reality that our citizens can only find decent jobs away from home.

Let’s dream of the day when Filipinos will no longer be forced to leave the country to survive. I am dreaming, yes I am, but it’s always an honor to dream for a better place, a better land, a better country, because when all is said and done, there is still no place like home.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at

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