As I opened my migration class last week, I read a riveting quote by Isabel Wilkerson: “what I love about the stories of the Great Migration is that this is not ancient history; this is living history. Most people of color can find someone in their own family who had experienced a migration of some kind, knowing the sense of dislocation, longing, and fortitude.”

Many households today could very well relate to this scenario. Indeed, the currency of this reality is very much evident in the Philippines as observed in the thousands of Filipinos leaving our airports and seaports to potential countries of destination elsewhere. With the expected signing today of the “ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers,” the regional bloc has come a long way on transcending the enduring debate between controlling and managing migration. The bottom line is, international migration continues to matter for everyone else, either from above (state or regional level) or from below (ordinary folks and non-state actors).

Two of my previous articles relatively dealt with migration issue at hand which is at the very heart of most Filipinos, both young and old, these days. I often visit Singapore not only for family trips and vacation but most often due to invitations to speak at conferences and paper presentations. My mom’s cousin (aunt) also lives there. I have former students and Ph.D. classmates who also work there now. I was there last year when I presented my paper at the “International Conference on Children, Family, and Migration in East Asia,” co-sponsored by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. In one occasion, I met a Filipina on a bus working there as a domestic helper. She said, she just came to the country and was pretty amazed by the discipline of the people and cleanliness of the streets. “It seems like heaven, a dreamland,” she said, compared to what we have in the Philippines.

Indeed, newly industrialized countries in Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are now turning as an alternative route for attendant migrants aside from the traditional immigration countries such the USA and Canada. I describe this phenomenon as “Whirlpool Effect” which I borrowed from George Orwell’s illustration of the “frightful extent of unemployment” in British society in the 1930s that made London as the “center” of opportunity for destitute, vagrants and beggars alike. These migrants are not at all impoverished or worst vagrants and beggars. We cannot discount the fact that there are also highly-skilled migrants and professionals who are financially capable of moving from one country to another.

A myriad factor, both internal and external, fuels labor migration from the Philippines. How come is this the case? Let me share some of the arguments I made when I was still writing my dissertation two years ago. Although migration mattered through history as Khalid Koser would have it described, the number of international migrants has more than doubled in the past 30 years or so. After World War II, industrialized capitalist countries pushed for an open trade, free markets around the world (economic globalization). Since then, global economic integration is a huge concern when it comes to market, capital, and investments, but not so much on labor. In her book, “The New Politics of Immigration and the end of Settler Societies,” Catherine Dauvergne argued that under the so-called “free trade” agreements, “people who move to do certain types of work are brought within the agreement and thus no longer appear as migrants.” We can cite the case of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the formation of the European Union, and our very own ASEAN economic community as archetypal examples.

In Southeast Asia, the two leading sending countries include Indonesia and the Philippines. The present wave of Filipino migrants could be traced back to the 1970s, which was seen as a policy choice of the administration then. Such policy drew on labor migration to pool all the needed resources for foreign currency in the Philippines through remittances sent back home. Up until the present, the government contends that the program is only a temporary stop-gap measure. The permanence of the temporary nature of the policy is now becoming more “permanently temporary” or rather “temporarily permanent.” Indonesia and to some extent Sri Lanka is now following our footstep through the institutionalization of migration (e.g., DOLE-POEA, OWWA, CFO, DFA-OUMWA).

The crux of the matter is that it is often argued that external migration or labor out-migration for that matter is only good for the sending or emigration states. It is, however, a false assumption; in a migration stream, both “origin” and “recipient” states benefit from the process. In fact, immigrants and migrants alike fill the vacant jobs, mostly low-skilled, considered dirty, difficult and dangerous (3Ds) that their native citizens avoid. Most often than not they also contribute to the national coffers through income and value-added taxes. How about the highly-skilled migrants who contribute to the economy (brain-gain) of the receiving end at the expense of the origin states (brain-drain)?

The contentious issue lies in the perceived security threat for the host or destination countries as these migrants allegedly are involved in criminal or terroristic activities. Even if this is not the case, host countries like Singapore and Malaysia are usually adamant about giving too much leeway for migrant workers’ protection as they argue that it only encourages more undocumented migrant workers. Consequently, the securitization of migration only fuels anti-immigrant and nativist sentiments. The unintended consequences of stringent border control only result in the further marginalization of migrants to abuses, human trafficking and illegal (irregular) migration.

On another side of the fence, advocates argued that labor forms part and parcel of most economical arrangements; without it, we might as well imagine how to contend with the rise of machines and robots as an alternative force. Until then, labor will always be a prerequisite in the means of production. However, workers are not just mere inputs or abstract objects. There is a slogan among migrant advocacy groups that advance countries needed workers, but in the end what they have got are human beings instead. As Cuban-American sociologist Alejandro Portes and American anthropologist Josh Dewind reiterate: “Redoubling border enforcement compels migrant laborers to abandon their previous pattern of circular migration, encouraging them instead to settle in the host country and bring their families. Instead of stopping migration, these get-tough policies end up consolidating migrants’ presence and further entrenching their support networks.”

At the end of the day, the accord of commitment on the protection of migrant workers among our neighboring countries is a big step ahead, but it is still a long way to go when reality sets in. In fact, the action plan or the implementing rules and regulation will be still be crafted next year. The caveat is, by 2018, ASEAN will be under the chairmanship of Singapore. Well, have you heard of the phrase “Cross that bridge when we get there”? (

Andi, owing to the Japanese Romaji version of his Katakana nickname アンディ, is a loving husband to a wife, a teacher, researcher, political analyst, and a community development specialist. He finished his PhD in Japan and has travelled extensively around East and Southeast Asia.

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