The realities and challenges of families of migrants and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) were given focus last August 8 during the second session of the DBCS Ongoing Formation Seminar Series for 2016, entitled “Accompanying Families Today.”
The Filipino Diaspora
Migration is an important area of concern for Filipinos; more than ten million of the population are now based overseas. About five to six thousand (newly hired and rehired) OFWs depart each day, which amounts to nearly two million a year.
Fr. Resty Ogsimer, SC, Secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People spoke on migration and its effects on Filipino families. Scalibrinians (SC) are especially dedicated to the service of migrants and refugees, and Fr. Resty has spent 16 years of his priesthood serving Filipinos based in Sydney, where he was assigned for five years after his ordination in April 1999, and then in Japan, from 2003–2014.
“The Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People sends missionaries to provide pastoral care to OFWs; in the local scene we provide programs for families left behind,” he explained. He admits that there is much to do, so “I am always on the go,” traveling to different places in the country and abroad.
According to a recent census, the Philippines has a population of 96 million, which is excepted to double by 2036. “Right now, we have about 101 million, 10% of which are OFWs, including permanent migrants and temporary migrants [and irregular — or illegal — migrants] all over the world.”
The top 10 countries of destination, which can easily change depending on the availability of jobs, are (1) the United States (US) with more than three million OFWs, (2) Saudi Arabia, (3) United Arab Emirates, (4) Malaysia, (5) Canada, (6) Australia, (7) Italy, (8) United Kingdom, (9) Qatar, and (10) Singapore. “We are also the number one producer of seafarers in the world market” — 40% are Filipino.
Among the reasons why people migrate are the following, “the search for better working conditions, higher salaries, resettlement, family reunification… even for the sake of curiosity.” The motivation for migration, which has been ongoing since the beginning of humankind, “has remained more or less the same.”
Effects of Migration
Fr. Resty said that in the experience of migration, “you will find both good and bad stories” — “loss of dignity and search for redemption are intertwined.”
Undeniably, migration has resulted in many positive developments including financial improvement, material benefits, better education, family comfort and recreation, upgrading of skills and knowledge, new technology, improved self-esteem and confidence, and exposure to other cultures.
“Officially, according to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (or the Central Bank), US$ 29 billion have been remitted by OFWs through legal channels.” Fr. Resty added however that much is unaccounted for since OFWs also send through other means, like their friends or relatives who are returning home. “It is a fact that due to OFW remittances, the Philippine economy is afloat.”
Sadly, Fr. Resty noted, negative effects have a wider scope. For example, he talked about the apparent feminization of migration. “Unfortunately, for the past five years, we have an increase of deployment of unskilled migrants…. those who are working in the service sector — that is, domestic workers [women in particular]. And 65% of the 1.8 million departures every year are domestic workers.”
These women migrants are among the most vulnerable. Many reports in media have shown that they become victims of contract violation (in other cases there is no contract at all), including delayed salaries or being paid a lesser amount than what was agreed upon. Moreover, about seven of these women are raped daily, especially in the Middle East.
Other negative effects include dysfunctional families, estrangement of relationships, marital breakups, early marriages (of the children of migrants), and consumerism.
Small wonder then that, as Fr. Resty noted, migrant families are included in AL’s five pastoral points and seven proposals.
Based on their data, Fr. Resty said that there are more tragic consequences when the mother goes overseas. The absence of the woman from the family has a deeper and more devastating effect on the children and the spouses compared to the absence of the man. Children of mother-absent families are more likely not to do well in school and to get sick. In fact, a survey conducted among children showed that between the father and mother, the former is the more preferred person to work abroad.
In addition, husbands of migrant wives are more prone to negative behavior including having more time to be attached to their barkada (or chums, to the detriment of the children), being more free to yield to the temptations of gambling and womanizing, and losing face because the woman earns more. It is also more difficult for husbands to take on the role of both father and mother compared to wives who are often more capable of assuming the role of both parents to their children.
Fr. Resty noted that wives of migrant husbands are also able to adjust more positively to the situation, becoming more independent, learning to become income earners and sole managers of the household, able to socialize more, and monopolize decision-making.
One of the most critical effects of migration is the impact on a couple’s marriage. OFWs and their spouses are certainly affected by their physical and forced separations, which can result in loneliness, sexual frustrations, infidelity, lack of intimate contact and communication, estrangement, broken marriages, among others. Moreover, their children are likely to suffer from a sense of abandonment and the absence of role models, engage in deviant behavior, and experience confusion and sense of insecurity and anxiety.
“When I am asked by friends to help them go abroad, I say ‘no’ especially if they are married,” shared Fr. Resty. Migrating, he said, is more advisable for single people.
Returning OFWs are not spared from their own share of suffering, which can include insecurity due to more unstable financial standing after their contract ends, and the lack of opportunities in the local job market where they can use the skills they learned overseas. They may also be past their prime and so it will be difficult to compete with the younger local workforce. Fr. Resty also added that the PhP 2 billion allotted by government so that OFWs can get a loan to start a business requires collateral. Thus returning migrants are discouraged by the prohibitive requirements. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle then to get that loan,” he remarked.
Moreover, it is devastating for OFWs who have been forced to extend their stay overseas to support their immediate family, and in many cases also their other relatives, to be told by loved ones that they still need to work.
“It is very painful for OFWs who have been languishing for many years and who finally wish to come home to be told by their family, ‘No, not yet.’”
Learning from a Seafarer’s Wife
For her part, Emma Lequit, who works in DBCS’s Evangelium Office and is a Master in Religious Studies (MRS) graduate, presented a concrete example of what it means to have a migrant in the family. Her husband, Rhonan, has been a seafarer since 2010. The couple have a young son, Sean Rhonan.
Rhonan has been deployed numerous times already on sea voyages along the Asia-Pacific coast. And at the time of his wife’s talk, he was attending his pre-departure orientation seminar for his next trip which will take him to the US for the first time.
Emma shared that she has always shown a keen interest in her husband and his work. She is well acquainted with his responsibilities and always makes it a point to ask him about his experiences and adventures when he comes home.
Life on board the ship involves his regular tasks, such as navigational watch and office duties, as well as moments for recreation, like sports and drinking sessions. Emma said that on shore time, when the ship docks at port, is the most difficult period for the seafarer. It is when the temptations come; some prostitutes would even come on board the ship. But it also offers positive forms of rest and recreation like sightseeing as well as the opportunity to shop for supplies.
Emma said her husband started at the lowest rank as ordinary seaman. This meant that he was assigned to do the dirty job, performing tasks that can be risky or dangerous. In fact, Rhonan had an accident involving a steel bar that injured his toes. “This is why we needed to work on getting his PRC license,” she explained. She helped him review for the board exam, which he successfully passed in 2014, enabling him to eventually get promoted one rank higher to able seaman.
Like many families of OFWs, they experience difficulties in dealing with members of the extended family, especially since people have so many misconceptions about seafarers. Many assume that all seamen earn high salaries, which Emma admits is not always the case, especially for the ones like her husband who are just starting out.
“I used to take 80% of his salary in the first year,” she admitted. This percentage is the usual allotted portion remitted to families of seafarers. But she learned that one needed to be conscientious and prudent in handling hard-earned money, and that it was wise to ask only for what they needed to avoid shopping sprees. And so the couple adopted a more responsible scheme, where Rhonan would only send Emma what she and Sean need monthly, so he can save the rest for when he comes home.
Their family, just as Fr. Resty shared earlier, is not spared from the psycho-social impact and effects of distance and physical absence — including isolation, estrangement, and the need to adjust and cope with the situation. “Every time Rhonan is deployed, it takes me four months to recover from the separation. He is my best friend. My son copes better than me,” Emma shared.
They also deal with financial difficulties. They still lack savings because certain expenditures are necessary — like costly seminars and training that Rhonan has to undergo to keep improving and developing his skills.
One of the things that Emma finds really difficult is going to Sunday Eucharist without her husband. “It really hurts when we are not all together.”
But in spite of their periods of separation, the family members have continued to bond closer, and to grow together spiritually. This is made possible by maintaining close communications through social media. Moreover, Emma shared that she had a special GPS installed for Rhonan: God’s Protective System. “I always entrust my husband to Mary Help of Christians and she has given us so many miracles…. and [I also entrust him to] Jesus Our Good Shepherd.”The family has wisely adopted a values system, featuring the core values of intimacy and dialogue. Interdependence is key, said Emma. “We value all members in the family, including our son. We also consult him when we make important decisions.” Putting the others first (instead of oneself) makes all the difference.
“Parenting is given priority,” Emma said. And both parents make it a point to bring their son to their work places so he can be exposed to the realities of their jobs.
“The Eucharist is at the center of our lives. It has been at the center since the beginning of our relationship, even before Rhonan and I were married. We are also devoted to the Nazareno [Black Nazarene]… and devoted to Mary. We also ask for all our material blessings through the intercession of Don Bosco.”
She likewise expressed her gratitude to the DBCS community, especially to all the Salesian priests and brothers who have supported her family and assisted in their material and spiritual needs. Studying for her MRS degree has also helped to evangelize her, enabling her in turn to evangelize her family.
The family makes it a point to share the blessings they receive with others as part of their advocacy. Among the things that Emma and Rhonan do together is to counsel young couples, and impart to them what they learned and experienced in their own marriage and family life.
Challenges for the Church
Indeed, a strong spirituality, frequent reception of the sacraments, awareness of the difficulties and the ways to cope with them can help OFWs and their families successfully navigate through the crises and difficulties of being apart. Unlike Emma’s family, however, there are many who are unaware of the tools that can help them. The Church can do much to help in this regard, and ought to reach out to them.
Fr. Resty underscored the need and the challenge to develop parish ministry for migrants. He noted the importance of cooperation and coordination between receiving and sending countries. Echoing AL and Pope Francis, he said pastoral and social services are necessary for both OFWs and the families they leave behind.
In the Philippines, there are more than 80 dioceses. But not all bishops are willing to have a program for migrants — in places where there is no information and people are not educated properly, they are more vulnerable to human trafficking. This is especially true for people living in the mountains and far-flung areas.
Emma added that parish organizations can provide concrete pastoral care like skills training, to help families be less dependent on remittances; spiritual formation and counseling to help them overcome isolation and materialism; evangelization for pre-departure formation, and promoting the dignity of work and rights of OFWs; and education for OFW families and relatives.
The Church has to provide adequate pastoral care in the face of all the realities and difficulties that OFWs and their families encounter. One such example is a Migrant Workers Program that has been offered and tested in the Pembo-Rembo area in Makati City. Boy Katigbak of Couples for Christ Foundation for Family and Life (CFC-FFL) explained that the program they designed includes several components, including, total family involvement, psycho-spiritual approach, training, and sustainability.
The three-part program includes modules on the family dimension, dynamics of strengthening family unity in time of separation; spiritual anchoring and parish-based community participation; and sustainability talks, teaching for parish general prayer assembly, including a reintegration program for OFWs and their families.
“The Pembo-Rembo area has such a huge population,” said Boy. In fact, he described that there were so many parishes catering to the people there that they resembled 7 Eleven stores that can be found at every street corner. One parish has about one hundred thousand parishioners. “We tested the program in this area, and it has been successful. Sustainability talks are ongoing…. We introduce it to parishes and they can give it their own name or title. In a few months, we had 200 OFWs.”
Boy reflected that there must be a reason why there are more than ten million Filipinos overseas. “They are filling the vacancies in the churches in Europe, US, and other continents.” He said that all of them leave the country bearing candles, and some of these may be unlit. By helping migrants and their families, we help to light their candles. “We hope the effect is the unifying factor of families even in the time of separation,” he said.
Remembering St. Paul’s words in 2 Timothy, he concluded that “we need to run the race, but let’s run it well.”
Maria Divina Solano, MRS, MATh is a graduate of DBCS, a guest professor, and coordinator of the DBCS Research Office.