MANILA - Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday alleged that some 3 million Chinese nationals who have traveled to the Philippines since 2017 paid P10,000 each to immigration personnel stationed in airports, while another 150,000 Chinese tourists gave bribes to illegally work in the Philippines.
Immigration personnel "have pocketed a total of P40 billion pesos since 2017 from facilitating the arrivals of Chinese nationals through the so-called Visa Upon Arrival (VUA) and the "pastillas scam" (non-VUA transactions)," Hontiveros said in a Senate hearing.
"May nangungurakot sa bawat sulok ng Bureau of Immigration (BI)," she said.
(There is corruption in every corner of the Bureau of Immigration.)
"Sa Pastillas, ang pera pumapasok sa airport, tapos sa mga IO (Immigration Officer) pinapamigay... Sa VUA, diretso sa main office," she said.
(Immigration officers in the airport profit from the "pastillas" scheme... [Kickbacks from the] VUA go straight to the main office.)
Hontiveros also questioned the "staggering" number of Chinese tourists who arrived in the Philippines in the past 3 years.
"For the sake of comparison, 4 million Chinese nationals arriving here since 2017 is comparable to more than the entire population of Quezon City," she said.
"Kumbaga, bakit mas marami pa sa mga residente ng QC ang bilang ng Chinese na pinapapasok sa bansa?" she said.
(Why are there more Chinese people entering the Philippines than the population of Quezon City?)
Other top arrivals in the Philippines between 2017 and 2019 were South Koreans at 6.1 million and Americans at 2.9 million, according to data from the Department of Tourism. This was not raised during the hearing.
Hontiveros did not disclose the source of her allegations.
The visa-upon-arrival perk for Chinese tourists was enforced in 2017 after then Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo pushed for the policy to help her "improve" her performance, former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II told senators.
"Ang sabi po sa'kin ni Secretary Wanda Teo, 'Tulungan mo naman ako para gumanda naman ang performance ko, para dumami naman ang tourists na dadating dito'," Aguirre said.
(Secretary Wanda Teo told me, 'Help me so that I can have a good performance, so that more tourists will come here.)
"Mayroon din po niyan (VUA) sa ibang bansa. Wala pong masama diyan," he said.
(There are also visas upon arrivals in other countries. There is nothing wrong in having it.)
Aguirre, as then justice chief, oversaw the Bureau of Immigration, an attached agency of the justice department.
The policy was halted in the first quarter of 2020 after the COVID-19 virus began to spread in China
Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente did not directly comment on the allegations against his personnel, but said the the agency has already limited the VUA validity up to only a month.
"As early as August last year... We made an amendment of the department order, na 1 month maximum na lang 'yung VUA and non-convertible (the VUA is only 1 month maximum and non-convertible)," he said.
Officials assigned to the Immigration's Travel Control Enforcement Unit and the Border Control Intelligence Unit - 2 offices accused of receiving bribes - have also been replaced, he said.
The Senate panel began looking into bribery schemes in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport earlier this year after a Taiwanese girl came to Hontiveros' office, saying she was duped into working for a Chinese firm here despite having a tourist visa.
There has been an influx of Chinese arrivals in the Philippines, many recruited to work in offshore gaming firms. Several have been linked to criminal activity, including abductions and working without proper permits.