An embassy serves as the nerve center for diplomatic affairs – headquarters of the chief of mission, staff and agencies -- whose priority is to serve the needs of Filipinos in their territory.
In 2012 the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila announced the closure of diplomatic missions of the Philippines in order to maximize their resources and to focus on the needs of Filipinos particularly in the Middle East.
But what impact has the changes had on the services provided to Filipino communities especially in Europe? Let us look at the missions in Sweden, Cyprus and United Kingdom and what they are now doing to serve the needs of overseas Filipinos and whether the embassy is able to respond to their problems.
The population of Filipinos in Sweden is estimated at 15,000. Previously, the country had its own embassy but this was shut down in 2012, and it is now one of the Scandinavian countries serviced by the Philippine Embassy in Oslo, Norway.
The embassy was included in the widespread closures of embassies around the world including Koror, Palau; Caracas, Venezuela; Dublin, Ireland, Havana, Cuba; Bucharest, Romania and Helsinki, Finland, as well as the Consulate Generals in Barcelona, Spain; Frankfurt, Germany and Saipan.
The service in Stockholm is now fronted by an Honorary Consul, Erik Belfrage, a Swedish businessman. He said, “I felt honored to be representing your country here in Sweden, and so I didn't have much hesitation. But of course at the same time, I knew that it is a bit of a burden, because I do not get any resources to do my job basically here in Sweden.”
Because of the lack of resources and time, it was not so easy to play his role for Filipinos, but all he could think about was how he could help those who need it.
His mandate is limited and focused on documentation, except the issuance of passports or visas. “I'm allowed to do a number of authentication of documents - Swedish and Filipino documents - that Filipinos or Swedish citizens having to do with the Philippines need in the paperwork. That I can do, but I cannot do visas, I cannot do passports, all these kinds of sort of legal documents,” he related.
But in this time of the internet, somehow this has reduced the pressures on the consulate. Now, a lot can be done now electronically. And you can always send documents via the post office - secured documents going back and forth – unlike in the past when you had to physically go somewhere to do something.
Belfrage believes in the important role played by embassies in international relations and the closure of the embassy in Sweden, as well as the closure of the Swedish Embassy in the Philippines, saddened him.
“I think it's a pity,” he said. “I think it's very important that we have as much relations as possible. We have some 15,000 Filipino citizens here in Sweden, and this is a manifestation of interests and relations.”
Many of the things that the Embassy in Stockholm and other cities did previously are now being fulfilled by Filcom leaders such as helping the undocumented, helping with their repatriation and many other forms of assistance.
One of the earliest Pinoys and Filcom leaders in Stockholm is Letty Simpson, who has been here since the 1970s. She tries to help out the undocumented as they are more in need of assistance.
She also helps twice a year to organize the embassy outreach from Oslo for those who need passports or visas, in order to fill the gap left by the closure of the embassy in Sweden.
Many of the issues of Filipinos are similar over the years and they are easy to resolve, but the undocumented migrants are the ones who really require their help.
In her experience, according to Simpson, “those who do not want to approach the embassy, normally, they come to me. Can they do this? Can you ask for them? Can you ask when they are coming here? I become an instrument for resolving their problems.”
For Simpson, she would still prefer to have a fully operational embassy in Sweden. “That’s what I say, so that we are secured…Like this, it’s as if we no longer have ties with Sweden, because the embassy is no longer here.”
The consulate in Nicosia provides all the services to be found in an embassy such as the processing of passports, unlike in Stockholm which provides limited services to the Filipino community.
The Filipino population in Cyprus is now estimated to be 24,000. About 90% of Filipinos here are domestic workers, according to the local consulate’s estimate. Some are in other industries such as hospitality, farming or shipping.
Shemaine Bushnell-Kyriakides, the Philippine Honorary Consul in Nicosia said that, “We are an honorary consulate office here, but we are in a unique situation because we actually have a resident labor attache and welfare officer here, which is also an official post, it doesn't really happen often with many countries with honorary posts.”
This means that they can provide many more services compared to other consulates, in view of the needs of the Filipino community here.
They have good relations with the authorities in Cyprus and because of this, they are able to provide shelter to Filipinos instead of seeing them detained for lack of documents.
Bushnell-Kyriakides added, “The immigration officials here work very well with us, because we have a system that they work with our system as well, it's a very easy system. I've had instances where they don't even put the person in jail and they ask us to provide her with a place to stay and we will provide the ticket and deport them back to the Philippines because they're illegal.”
According to Sylvia Capupus-Valdez, POLO Welfare Officer in Nicosia, they look after the welfare of the overseas Filipinos in the country and they are prepared to help as much as they can for example to find shelter or about their employment situation.
They also organize social and sporting activities in order to improve the relationship of Filipinos with one another including their health. The training they organize is aimed at our compatriots so they can learn how to manage their finances especially in time of crisis.
Sylvia Capupus-Valdez, POLO Welfare Officer, Philippine Consulate in Nicosia, said that, “So as much as possible, we are trying our best to help them learn how to manage their money so that their hard work will not end in nothing.”
Because of the economic crisis, salaries in Cyprus went down and this was such a massive issue. OWWA and the Consulate try to ensure that contracts are followed by employers for their Filipino workers. Whatever is written in the contract is what they push for.
The Embassy of the Philippines in the United Kingdom is one of the fully operational missions in Europe. It also services those who reside in the Republic of Ireland.
There are an estimated 300,000 Filipinos in the United Kingdom including permanent residents, citizens, students, the new generation and the undocumented.
An embassy has three aims: 1) To strengthen the country’s diplomatic ties for its national security; 2) Create and improve our economic relationships; and 3) To provide assistance to nationals in the host country.
Consul General Senen Mangalile of the Philippine Embassy in London explained to the third pillar of diplomatic missions – assistance to nationals, which has been their focus for the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“That is what we were talking about, that the embassy could be on their side, and is a place to run to for our compatriots who encounter problems in the country where they are. All the pillars are equal. No pillar has more weight than the others, they are all important.”
The Filipino community in the UK is composed of various individuals, from business professionals to domestic workers, nurses and scholars, each of which have their own service and support requirements from the mission.
“We have a very rich community in terms of experience, background. There you will see different situations, but they are all Filipinos. The disadvantage is sometimes not everyone is comfortable with other members of the community. They have their own concerns as well as their own advocacies they want to push forward," Mangalile said.
The most vulnerable group is the undocumented migrants, and the embassy is always open to help them.
“The embassy is their friend,” the Consul General said. “Many somehow think that the embassy is cooperating with the British authorities in order to send Filipinos home. This is not true. The embassy of the Philippines is blind when it comes to their visa status in the UK. Whatever visa status you have, we are here to serve.“
If a migrant is undocumented and wishes to go home to the Philippines, they can be given papers and assistance by the embassy so that they could go quickly, especially now they have a source of funds.
“The first thing is documentation. If they want to go home have no valid papers in order to travel, that is a service the embassy can provide. If they can show us a birth certificate, we can give them a travel document.”
Many Filipinos in need approach the embassy and they are assisted by the ‘Assistance to Nationals’ Team.
“If their problem is a fellow Filipino, the embassy is available to mediate. But it has its limitation. The embassy has no police powers and cannot compel a person to join the mediation if they do not want to.”
There are difficult cases to pursue, especially where the scammers are now British citizens, but they could still be blacklisted so they could no longer visit the Philippines.
Because their responsibilities include Ireland, the embassy undertakes consular visits to Dublin in order to provide services to Filipinos living there.
Like Sweden and Cyprus, the services provided to the Filipino community are limited because there is no longer an embassy.
However they have appointed an Honorary Consul in Dublin and Filipinos with service needs from the mission can go to him. He has an office where they can obtain consular services including assistance to nationals except for passports.
Immigration does not only mean leaving our country and residing in another country. The circle of a migrant’s life continues to revolve around our native country.
Even if you have already become a citizen of a European country, you will still need the services of the Philippine embassy. This might be because you need to visit, for business, residence, retirement or if you have something you want them to do.
The embassy, consulate general and even the honorary consulates, therefore, are like a partner for life. You might not visit a mission that often but it is a house of friends for the overseas Filipino.
If you have a legal need, be it a simple affidavit or change of status or name, it is the embassy to which we head for.
Or if you have a serious problem, for example you have fallen victim to fraudsters, or lost a loved one, or perhaps your passport has long expired or you are undocumented, do not hesitate to run to the embassy for assistance.
Do not be timid or afraid to go to the Philippine embassy if you have a problem, such as a lack of visa, because the embassy is ‘blind’ regarding your visa status, and their only purpose is to provide a service to you. (With Rose Eclarinal and Patrick Ropeta)
The above article is part of the feature on TFC’s monthly series Juan EU Konek, presented by immigration consultant Gene Alcantara with ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau chief Danny Buenafe and senior correspondent Rose Eclarinal.
For the March 1 episode, Buenafe will tackle housing crisis in London and how Pinoy migrants are coping with high cost of houses and rent, and Eclarinal will feature two inspiring stories of Pinoys in Birmingham, England and Brussels, Belgium: Doreen Jaena Mooney, the first Filipina bestowed an MBE by the queen and a former undocumented migrant who started his own business after years of hard work.
Juan EU Konek airs every first Sunday of the month at 8.35 p.m. London; 9.35 p.m. Rome; 11:35 p.m. Saudi, with replays the following day at 4.05 a.m. in Rome; 3.05 a.m. UK; and 6.30 a.m. Saudi. It also airs every second week of Saturday on ABS-CBN News Channel, 11 p.m. (Manila)