UAE-based Filipino barred from travelling as tourist by Manila immigration officers, asked to ‘cancel’ residence visa first

A Dubai-based expert stressed that while ‘it is true that there are Filipinos who go to other countries and then fly to UAE to work, it may also be true that a passenger merely wants to have a vacation’

By Angel L. Tesorero / Khaleej Times

A 27-year-old Filipina expatriate who visited her home country recently was barred from going to Hong Kong by a Philippine immigration official, who told her she had to “cancel her UAE residence visa first” before she can leave the country as a tourist.

Nathaly Dumlao, 27, who works as an HR (human resources) executive in Abu Dhabi, said the incident happened on March 20. She and her partner had been planning for weeks to celebrate their anniversary and the latter’s birthday in Hong Kong.

They came to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila with all the documents in hand — including return tickets, bank statement, hotel reservation, etc. — to prove they are tourists.

She narrated: “At the primary inspection, an immigration officer named Paola told me I could not leave the Philippines as a tourist because I have an existing UAE residence visa and my Emirates ID is still active.”

Dumlao said all her work documents are still active because she is going back to work in the UAE after the trip. “We are just going to relax, unwind and celebrate our anniversary in Hong Kong,” she added.

The Abu Dhabi resident also furnished a copy of her overseas employment certificate (OEC) — a mandatory travel document for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) – to prove that she is going back to her job in the UAE.

Secondary inspection

Dumlao said they went to a secondary inspection, where they furnished copies of their bank account and small business registration in their hometown.

“An immigration official asked: ‘Why do you carry this much money? – and I replied that is my savings from my salary,” said Dumlao, adding: “I was also planning to buy some luxury bags in Hong Kong.”

Dumlao’s partner, a former UAE resident who has relatives in Dubai, was also interviewed separately.

‘Go to UAE Embassy’

According to Dumlao, the tedious questioning, repeated explanation, argument, and waiting went on for over two hours, making them miss their flight.

“In the end, Paola (the immigration official) told me I will only be allowed to travel to Hong Kong if I cancel my UAE residence visa,” said Dumlao, adding: “I was told to go to the UAE Embassy in Manila to have my work visa cancelled before I can travel as a tourist.”

Here’s a note that the officer handed her:

Dumlao continued: “The immigration official added: ‘Have your OEC verified again by the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration). We cannot let you travel as a tourist because you are an OFW and you have an active working visa.”

“My partner, meanwhile, got the green light to travel,” Dumlao added.

Dumlao and her partner were not able to celebrate their anniversary in Hong Kong. Dumlao instead waited for her return flight to the UAE on March 23. She said she did not encounter any other problem but she met the same immigration official at the airport who wished her “to have a safe flight.”

Dumlao is now back in Abu Dhabi.

Hunting for jobs abroad

The Philippine Bureau of Immigration (BI) has earlier said they are implementing stringent screening as part of their task to combat human trafficking. They are looking out in particular for Filipinos travelling as tourists but are actually hunting for jobs abroad.

In the case of Dumlao, she admitted she left the Philippines via Singapore as a tourist way back in 2017 and was able to find suitable employment in the UAE. This was pointed out by the immigration officials who interviewed her.

Dumlao argued she has regularised her status since then. She’s now a documented OFW, who is registered with the POEA, and has paid her dues as an Owwa (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) member.

After almost five years, she went home in October 2022 and went back to the UAE a month later with no hassle at the Manila airport. She only showed her OEC, also known as exit clearance/pass, a document presented to the immigration officer at the airport of exit in the Philippines, certifying the documentation of an OFW and proof of his/her registration with the POEA.

What the law says

According to Philippine Republic Act No. 9208 (Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003), and its Implementing Rules and Regulations, Republic Act No. 8042 (Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995), Filipino tourists need only to show a passport, visa (when required), and round trip ticket to travel.

“The Bureau of Immigration shall conduct a secondary inspection of a traveler, when deemed necessary, for the purpose of protecting vulnerable victims of human trafficking and illegal recruitment and other related offenses, through the assessment of the following circumstances: a) Age b) Educational attainment and c) Financial capability to travel.

“Any passenger/traveler who will be subjected to secondary inspection shall be required to accomplish the Bureau of Immigration Border Control Questionnaire (BCQ) to be furnished by the immigration officer.”

‘Clear violation’

Dubai-based migrant rights advocate Barney Almazar said there was a violation of Dumlao’s human rights.

Almazar, who is also director at Gulf Law in the UAE, Philippines, UK and Portugal, explained: “Requiring a traveler to cancel a valid UAE residency as a condition to visit another country for a vacation is a clear violation of the guidelines on departure formalities for international-bound passengers in all airports and seaports in the Philippines.

“OFWs on vacation but visiting other countries before returning to original worksite/destination need not get a POEA travel exit clearance/OEC. Hence, the traveler is considered a tourist and is not exempt from travel tax and terminal fee, but shall be allowed to travel,” he underlined.

Almazar noted: “It is true that a lot of passengers will go to Hong Kong or other Asian countries and then fly to UAE or elsework to work, to avoid OEC. But it may be also true that the passenger merely wants to have a vacation. OFWs also have the right to go on vacation.”

“The immigration officer noted Dumlao’s previous travel record to Singapore, a destination frequently used as a jump-off point to work in Dubai. Dumlao may have violated the law then when she posed as a tourist in Singapore to avoid securing OEC, but her status was already cured by the subsequent act of registration with POLO in Dubai,” Almazar underlined.

Right to travel

The case of Dumlao is not isolated. Last week, Khaleej Times reported the story of a Dubai-bound Filipino tourist who was offloaded at the Philippine airport twice after he failed to show an affidavit of support and guarantee (AoSG).

Earlier, a Filipina tourist missed her flight to Israel after a Philippine immigration official allegedly asked her lengthy and ‘unreasonable’ questions, including a demand to present her 10-year-old graduation yearbook. Her sad fate went viral on social media and this prompted another Filipino traveler to bring her own college diploma to the airport, in case an immigration officer will ask for it.

Another tourist, a 25-year-old vlogger, arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila wearing a toga or academic regalia worn in graduation ceremonies. “It was not meant to ridicule immigration officials but to highlight the fact that some Filipino tourists were held unreasonably at the airport and barred from leaving the country,” Jim Morales told Khaleej Times.

These incidents prompted the call from travel and migration experts to review the stringent immigration screening, including presenting bank statements, graduation yearbook, or diploma to prove that they are fit to go abroad.

Almazar noted: “There is a constitutional safeguard guaranteeing the right to travel, which shall not be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health. The liberty to travel has been repeatedly abridged, impaired and violated by no less than the immigration officers. Passengers are being offloaded despite absence of proof that the travel is inimical to national security, public health and public safety.”

Scrap OEC

In particular, Almazar is calling for the abrogation of the OEC. He noted: “It is an antiquated system. Its mandatory application has never been efficient to serve a legitimate public purpose. A voluntary system of registration is a less burdensome measure that would suffice to achieve the government’s purpose of curtailing human trafficking.”

“The advantages of giving immigration officers unbridled power on the premise of protecting passengers are outweighed by its disadvantages. The Philippine Congress must correct these lapses soon, lest we see more Filipino travelers being abused,” he said. #

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This March 28, 2023 report is original to Khaleej Times, republished with permission from the author.