Staying grounded: What stands between Filipino travelers and the world

From the flawed immigration system to our passport’s minuscule power, it is no secret that Filipinos face difficulties in applying for any type of visa.

Conceptually, international travel isn’t that difficult. The process goes as simply as buying tickets, reserving lodging, coming up with a budget, listing down the places to go to or the food to eat, and arriving on time at the airport to catch the flight. One difficulty of being a Filipino traveler, however, is the strength of passport power, or lack thereof. 

Currently ranked 67th on the Henley Passport Index—a roster of how many destinations a country’s passport holder can access without a visa—Filipinos hold a clear disadvantage when it comes to traveling without a visa. 

Booking the ticket

One could always apply for a visa; but even if this is an open option for Filipinos who wish to cross borders, there is a preconceived notion of intimidation and fear when it comes to visa applications due to the stories of warranted success and puzzling failed attempts.

Christina Morales, an editor for travel digest, shares her experience, “The US visa application took something like a month or two. My China visa took maybe two weeks to process.” In addition, she notes that her recent US visa renewal during the pandemic took longer than expected due to the availability of the schedule to renew.

Visa application results vary, and there is simply no guarantee that one will be granted a visa. The difficult part, however, is understanding what the flaws in the system are and why they persist; these flaws may offer many contributions to an overlooked issue of a stark fear present in processing visa applications.

Kenny Alunan (IV, BS-MGT) recalls his firsthand experience with visa applications vividly. Being the former team captain of the La Salle Debate Society, Alunan has represented the University in various debate competitions—a handful of which were held abroad. He shares that due to international competitions, he has experienced applying for three different visas—namely, Japan, Korea, and most recently, Schengen for the recently held 2023 World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) in Madrid, Spain.

When it comes to the process of visa applications itself, Alunan brings up the element of distrust even with the right documents involved, “Not only is there [a] huge amount of documents that seem unnecessary but also to prove that you aren’t going to run away is insane.”

Eventually, Alunan was rejected for a Schengen visa—to which he feels disappointed since WUDC would’ve been his last major competition as a collegiate debater. He shares that the reason for rejection is vague but suspects that being raised by a single mother connoted weak home ties. This goes to show that some fears in the application process are not without reason; there is a looming possibility of being denied a visa due to unknown and undue reasons. 

Morales says that “your travel history and financial capacity are the biggest factors” that affect visa applications—at least in her experience. Whether said qualifications are fair or not is a sentiment she feels conflicted with. With issues like “tago nang tago” (TNT)—an official term coined for overstaying and undocumented Filipino overseas workers—and other abuse of systems, Morales understands why certain policies in visa applications are in place. Nonetheless, the effects and difficulties of being required to obtain a visa can feel unfair. 

Baggage check 

“The experience (of getting rejected for a visa) is an amalgamation of a lot of feelings, not only because the feeling is hard to describe in very concise words—it’s a mix of a lot of things,“ Alunan claims. 

The principle of simply displaying oneself through a couple of documents, coupled with the bleak and unpersonable environments of embassies, makes for a combination susceptible to discrimination even when one comes fully prepared. Knowing that a single detail could affect the chances of approval rears anxiety in new and experienced applicants alike. Alunan furthers, “I think it makes you feel very small—the conversation here that you feel like you’re having isn’t a person to person…[it’s like] you’re talking to a country. And who are you to a country?”

Passing through foreign immigration can be just as arbitrary. “We often heard stories—mostly [from] our overseas Filipino workers—of the unfair treatment they have with the immigration,” Clarisse Demata, Universal Holidays, Inc. documentation officer, conveys. While it’s natural that nations are on the lookout for undocumented travelers for national security, the criteria for permitting people to fly can be as flimsy as dressing nicely but also as telling as turning away those with darker skin tones. In extreme cases, it could just be a case of “power-tripping or abuse of authority that some of our officers have,” as Demata puts it.

“I think that the visa application process should just be friendlier—not documentation-wise, just actually friendlier.” Alunan remarks. There must be more effort for foreign parties to regularly update their visa requirements and ensure their officers aren’t overworked and abusing their power. He adds that embassies and consulates should “invest in more workers so that they could have the energy to be kind to people.”

Weighing in

Filipino immigration continues to be turbulent for a number of reasons—not all of which are tied to the immigration system. There are still Filipinos who travel undocumented or illegally procure false papers to bypass proper procedure, a practice that is familiar to those that choose to TNT. “I know people who are TNT-ing even though they have the means to go through the legal process—they just don’t do it because it’s easier. I think Filipinos need to understand that these irresponsible and selfish actions affect all Filipino travelers,” Morales posits. 

Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that weak international ties and an unstable economy clearly affect the strength of the Philippine passport and citizenry. There is only so much a traveler can do to prepare to only still be burdened with the country’s global position. “It’s wishful thinking, but it would be easier for Filipinos if we were not a third-world country and had stronger ties with other nations. This would greatly reduce the skepticism they have for Filipinos who want to travel abroad,” Demata admits. 

To that, Alunan prompts all Filipinos to stand firm amid the intimidation. He postulates, “It’s simply not your fault. Our lives are composed of a deep history of interactions between [foreign] powers that [are] greater than ourselves.” On an individual level, having confidence in the truth of your documents is about as much as one can do. As rudiment as it seems, that alone can be enough. “Be direct to the point when answering questions. And this should be a given, but don’t lie on your application,” Morales recommends.

Although international travel is yet to be an easygoing procedure for all Filipinos, this shouldn’t discourage people from trying. As Philippine citizens still stand in the shadow of outward doubt, we must remember to value our own integrity and dignity as people first and foremost—only then will the world see our worth. 

Clarisse Bernal

By Clarisse Bernal

MJ Tinio

By MJ Tinio

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