Travel restrictions on resident foreigners

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

Like most countries in Asia, the Philippines imposed restrictions on the movement of people in and out of the country as a critical component of its response to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In recent months we have learned a lot about the impact this has had on Filipinos traveling into and out of the country, particularly OFWs. A little discussed subset of this restriction has been the impact on businesses, particularly multinationals that employ foreigners either as executives or Filipino companies that engage them as technical personnel. That restriction commenced on March 20 when a blanket travel ban was imposed against inbound foreign nationals, except for foreign spouses and children of Filipino nationals, foreign government and international organization officials, and foreign airline crews. This exemption was extended on July 16 to cover foreign nationals with long-term visas by virtue of being immigrants having acquired permanent resident status by reason of his/her marriage to a Filipino citizen. All these permitted categories were required to undertake the health protocol, including quarantine and testing.

Foreign business executives and employees, except those who were already in the country were however still covered by the ban. Subsequently, a process was put in place that allowed the exemption of foreign nationals from the travel ban on a case to case basis, such that its approval would depend on whether the purpose of their travel is urgent and essential. With an approved travel ban exemption, foreign nationals whose functions are highly critical and essential to the company may be allowed to enter the country to perform their duties and responsibilities.

That said, I understand that applications for exemption have had limited success, taking six to eight weeks for the process. For example, one chamber has handled 30 applications, only 10 have been approved, two rejected and 18 are pending. Depending on the sector the person is in, the request is filed with the appropriate department (e.g. DTI, DOE, PEZA, DOTr etc.).  Once approved, the exemption is forwarded to the DFA which, in turn, is forwarded to the Bureau of Immigration. In the months of August and September, the DFA received 35 requests per day. DFA has since promised a seven-day turn-around upon receipt of the approval from the various departments/agencies.

There have also been unique challenges among teachers in international schools, causing a substantial drop in enrollment. The ADB and the US Embassy are the most affected.  Then there are affected companies, like IBM, P&G, Fluor and others whose employees have 9A visas which have been invalidated requiring the above exemption process. One company had 60 expats in this category (9A) prior to lockdown and now they have only 10. They are concerned about the possibility of one power plant going down if these technical staff are not exempted soon.

Then there is the Philippine Retirement Authority SRRV visa, which is a lifetime visa. It is a special non-immigrant visa. They have chosen to make the Philippines their second home. Presumably they are exempted and can be treated as resident-Filipinos going back and forth to and from abroad in compliance with quarantine requirements.

AMCHAM comments, Christmas exemption

Ebb Hinchcliffe of the American Chamber commented: “Considering all countries in Asia and ASEAN also have restrictions, everyone is affected. I would think that the Philippines’ overall handling of the situation has been seen as a plus by many companies.” He said the situation is improving and that more exemptions are being granted, although still a long way from getting all that is needed. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment among expatriates even as they express the hope that serious consideration for dependents abroad should be allowed entry during the Christmas season regardless of the visa type issued.

Restoring business travel

Ease of travel for expat executives and those on short term business trips can be an important component of economic recovery as it impacts on FDI location decisions and has been intensified by the growing dominance of the global value chain business model, the deepening of supply chain networks and the prevalence of global outsourcing and offshoring. With the likelihood of COVID-19 being among us for a year or even more, and the uncertainty of when safe and effective vaccines can be widely deployed, the government should consider establishing protocols that facilitate such travel on the basis of a risk-benefits analysis supported by input from multi-sectoral considerations.

While we cannot second-guess the government in its effort to safeguard public health, it would help if the country participates in global and regional initiatives to develop ways to facilitate essential movement of business people and their dependents across borders, without undermining the efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Those efforts include calls for the urgent development of common health procedures and protocols that can lay the foundations for the earliest possible restoration of trusted travel across the region.

The various elements for trusted travel that have been suggested include: classifying countries as likely or not to be a source of imported infections; protocols upon departure and on arrival; tracking protocols in the destination country; and international agreements on “safe behaviors” such as wearing masks, social distancing and regular temperature checking.

Some protocols already existing in several countries require business visitors to be subject to PCR tests before departure and after arrival, and submission of schedules of their activities and record their movement using smartphone app. The International Chamber of Commerce has developed the ICC AOK pass, which is a secure way to present medical information at the border that is digitally authenticated using the AOK pass peer-to-peer blockchain verification technology.

Clearly there are ways to balance this very limited window of allowing the essential movement of business people, particularly expats, as part of the economic recovery effort while safeguarding public health. Let us encourage our policy makers to see it this way too.


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