Locals pay price of Philippine exodus

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Amidst this week's usual headlines of crimes, celebrities and recessions, a telling news story appeared.

It was an investigation series by the Toronto Star, examining the lives of those who arrive in Canada to become nannies under the federal government's Live-In Caregiver program. The Star's two-part series documented the deception and exploitation that all too often greets those who dream of better lives in Canada.

Much has been said about the precarious lives of migrants in Canada -- and as the Star proved this week, much more remains to be said. But few have explored the other side of the equation.

As migrants continue to arrive in droves on the doorsteps of developed countries to work as caregivers, general labourers, sex workers, teachers and nurses, what happens to their countries of origin?

In 2008, I spent three months in the Philippines attempting to answer this question. What I found was a country obsessed with its living, breathing social experiment with migration -- in all of its glory and disadvantages. It's an experiment, sadly, whose overwhelming outcome has been the slow collapse of the country's social infrastructure.

"Migration is to the Philippines what cars once were to Detroit: its civil religion," writes Jason Deparle in the New York Times. One million Filipinos left the Philippines last year, he notes, "enough to fill six 747s a day."

It's the manifestation of the Philippines' latest development strategy -- the export of human capital. "It's not politically correct to say that you're exporting people," the labour secretary of the Philippines, Patricia Santo Tomas, once told reporters, "but it's part of globalization and I like to think that countries like ours, rich in human resources, have that to contribute to the rest of the world."

Aided and abetted by a worldwide network of recruiters as well as three government-sponsored agencies, Filipinos have embraced this role, leaving in ever-increasing numbers, driven by the desire to earn money they can send home. More than 10 per cent of the country's population of 89 million now lives abroad. In 2008, they sent home an estimated U.S.$16.3 billion in remittances.

Migration has become big business for the Philippines. Office buildings like the Midland Plaza in Manila have been transformed into migration centres, with recruitment agencies, travel agents and hopeful migrants crammed into every inch of the three-story complex. The walls are lined with job advertisements, all marked urgent, demanding everything from photographers to coffee makers and trailer drivers for countries ranging from Qatar to Australia.

As Rona Panizale, a Filipina bound for the Netherlands in a matter of months explains, "here, if you don't have relatives who live abroad, it's not normal." She learned what an overseas foreign worker was 15 years ago, when she was eight years old. That was the word used to explain why her mother was moving to Dubai to work as a domestic helper.

Their mother's migration made the Panizales pioneers of a family structure that has now become the norm in the Philippines; the transnational family, whose immediate members are spread among two or more countries.

In the Philippines, where more than two-thirds of the migrant workers are women, transnational families mean that mothering often happens from a distance. Panizale remembers her mother visiting every two or three years for one month, and the rest of the time she was raised by her grandparents. The family's gamble paid off and today the Panizales have zero debt, own an enormous mansion and have access to anything they could ever ask for.

Other outcomes of migration prove more difficult to measure; from a democratic system hampered by the fact that everyone is either living abroad, dreaming of going abroad or being supported someone abroad, to an NGO system that has been forced to supplant the Filipino government in protecting the rights of migrant workers. Local teachers rotate in and out of schools to the speed of their overseas visa processing, while the country's health-care system lay on the brink of collapse due to migrating professionals.

"Over the last 10 years, they've had over 100,000 nurses go abroad," says Joanne Lazarus, a Canadian anthropologist who studies the effects of migration on the Filipino health-care system. Due to a lack of staff, 1,000 hospitals have shut down in the Philippines in the past two years.

The high demand abroad for Filipino nurses has spawned a bizarre trend, where licensed doctors are taking further studies in nursing in order to be able to migrate abroad more easily. "This year, they've got 5,000 doctors retraining to be nurses," says Lazarus.

The phenomenon offers a glimpse of just how far Filipinos will go to migrate and begs the question being whispered by Filipinos at home and abroad: is migration really the remedy for the Philippines' woes?

Migration has traditionally been thought of as an action that negatively affects development -- but as the remittances that migrants send home continue to grow exponentially, proponents have shifted the debate to argue that migration can actually enhance a country's development. "Mother's milk for poor countries," one Asian paper called remittances when they first started to surpass the world's foreign aid budget.

Remittances have the potential to unleash enviable development on a country, say theorists. They are community-focused and self-motivated. They are sustainable, grassroots development that often puts money exactly where it needs to be -- in the households of developing nations. Remittances don't require any costly bureaucracy and the money stands little chance of falling into the hands of corrupt government officials.

Remittances are often first spent on basic subsistence needs and better housing, contributing to the welfare of the family and raising the family's standard of living. They often directly fuel human capital development, through increased spending on education, more schooling for children and reduced child labour.

But of all the remittances flowing in, little of it is actually invested back into the Philippines. The dearth of jobs continues, as does the ever-powerful lure of overseas jobs. What results is a circular migration pattern whereby the children of migrants often find themselves abroad working the same jobs as their parents.

And it is this pattern that might stand as the strongest argument against migration as a tool for development. Remittances from their mother helped all five of the Panizale children pay for their college and university degrees. As they graduated university, one after the other, each found jobs in the Philippines. But the money was never enough to compete with what they knew they could earn abroad.

One by one, they went overseas. Now there's just one sister left in the Philippines. She takes care of all the children left behind -- three of them, plus one of her own. She and her husband tried long ago to migrate to Canada, she says, but their application was denied. Now she's accepted that her job is to stay in the Philippines and play caregiver to the Filipino quotient of the Panizale family.

It's just how life here is, explains Rona Panizale, shrugging her shoulders. "It's really normal."

Ashifa Kassam's research in the Philippines was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

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