MANILA – Almost 5,000 Filipinos left their homes every day between 2010 and 2013 to seek work overseas, government data shows, most hoping to provide an education for their children and to meet the most basic needs of their families.
That startling statistic helped make the Philippines one of the world’s largest labor suppliers, mainly to other countries in Asia and the Middle East, and the fourth-largest recipient of remittances worldwide.
However, the strain of decades of labor migration has come with a significant social cost in Asia’s largest Catholic community and likely will be addressed by Pope Francis during his first visit to the Philippines which starts later on Thursday.
Francis will meet ordinary Filipinos on Friday, including a migrant worker’s family. About half of the country’s 100 million people have been affected by labor migration.
It is a timely meeting for Francis, who has made defense of vulnerable migrants and workers a central issue of his papacy. At an October synod on the family, he urged bishops to find solutions to the challenges faced daily by families.
“We acknowledge the economic benefits that it brings,” said George Campos, head of Couples for Christ, the largest Catholic family movement in the Philippines.
“But it would not compensate (for) the loss of the parent from the children and the stability of the relationship within the family,” he said.
Between 10 million and 12 million Filipinos live and work overseas. With the average Philippine family comprising five members, that means at least half the population could depend on a relative working overseas sending money home to feed, clothe and educate their families.
Their remittances, which proved resilient during global economic crises, continue setting yearly records and account for about 9 percent of Philippine GDP.
However, the social costs of such large-scale labour migration include the alienation of parents from their children and the breakdown of families.
Infidelity and marriage annulment cases have risen over the years—there is no divorce in the Philippines—although there are no official figures.
“From experience, the number one problem of couples is infidelity,” said Father Resty Ogsimer, executive secretary of the Catholic Church-based migrant welfare group ECMI.
Cases of workers being duped into human trafficking and prostitution also appear to be on the rise. Ogsimer said Filipinos often fell victim to human trafficking after leaving through unofficial channels via southwestern Zamboanga province on the way to Malaysia and elsewhere.
That is borne out by the case of a 29-year old mother of two who left in June 2012 after a Filipino recruiter and family friend promised her work with a theatre group in Singapore. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she was sold as a prostitute in the Johor Bahru region of Malaysia.
She returned to the Philippines a month later, battered and bruised and with an injured knee after she escaped from a walled compound where she was held by her recruiters.
A few months after her return, she separated from her husband, who she said took their youngest child and never returned.
There are more unexpected problems, authorities say, with families becoming accustomed to spending money they would not normally have and workers getting into debt to maintain new-found lifestyles.
The Church acknowledges the problems and ECMI has sought to create ministries helping migrants’ families in Catholic dioceses around the Philippines over the past five years, Ogsimer said.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said the Church must help children and spouses left behind to keep their families intact.
“It is a pastoral concern,” Tagle said last week.