By: Rigoberto D. Tiglao
TO be fair, this kind of nightmare for airline travelers has always been a perennial problem during the holidays, when the number of international travelers drastically increase. Then President Gloria Arroyo in 2003 even had to make a surprise visit to the airport to knock airport authorities’ heads to make the gates to our country tourist- and OFW-friendly.
I am referring to the unbelievably long, nightmarish queues at the immigration counters I myself witnessed returning from an overseas vacation during the holidays.
Worse, Philippine Airlines Terminal 2 doesn’t appear to have been improved at all so that passengers have to be brought from their planes to the terminal on buses. The terminal though was so crowded because of the long immigration queues that the arriving passengers had to wait in their buses — which either had no air-conditioning or had malfunctioning ones.
The scene was maddening: travelers were jampacked shoulder-to-shoulder; babies were bawling out because of the heat and feeling the crowd’s anxiety; an old man on a wheelchair, I was afraid, seemed to be giving up on life itself. It took me nearly an hour for my passport to be stamped.
A British lady carrying a crying baby could not help but remark: “I’m not going to back to this bloody place ever.” A Hong Kong Chinese lady accompanying her husband’s wheelchair asked the airport porter why PWDs and the elderly aren’t given priority in going through immigration, “like every civilized airport in the world does.”
It was surreal, adding to the din of people in a cramped place was a band singing rambunctious Filipino songs that foreigners wouldn’t understand.
Welcome to the Philippines. It’s certainly more fun in the Philippines, if you enjoy a hellish hall.
I’d blame it all on our immigration bureau which has proven to be be disgracefully incompetent. There were only six immigration officers processing what probably were a thousand passengers lining up for their passports to be stamped. Outrageous was that one of the immigration cubicles wasn’t even manned at all.
There wasn’t even an immigration overall supervisor on the ground who could have speeded up the lines by ordering that empty cubicle to be manned.
I suspect that the bureau head, former police general Jaime Morente, thinks that his only job is to run after illegal immigrants or stop them at the border. With the boom in our tourism, I would think his main job is to make our gates easy to pass through at the same that reasonable checks are in place to bar criminals.
Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat should just take a long vacation. What’s the use of encouraging more tourists when they’ll just vow not to return after experiencing the ordeal of having to wait in a hot, cramped place to reach the immigration counter?
I suspect this disgrace to our Republic is happening not only during the holiday season, if we go by the numbers. The tourism department claims that international tourists have grown from just 3 million in 2011 to 7 million in the first three quarters of last year.
Has the number of immigration staff at the airports been increasing? No.
I was even told it has decreased, with airport immigration officers declining to work in the evening or on overtime since, and this is the good news, prospects for extorting travelers and OFWs have declined.
If Morente simply does his job though, I’m sure there are many ways to speed up the immigration processing in our airports — as nearly all of the countries of the world have done. Off the cuff, I can see two solutions.
First, Morente should do what only an idiot would fail to do: Increase the number of immigration staff processing travelers’ passports. Have a standby staff in case the assigned staff doesn’t show up. Have a time-and-motion study, systems analysis, or whatever.
Second, many countries in the world do not require their citizens to have their passports processed when they return to the country. Greeks do not have to show their passports to the immigration staff but simply their identity cards. A beneficial byproduct of this is that it would give a boost to the government’s program to implement a national ID system.
It could really also be a source of pride for us Filipinos. “Ha! This is my country, I don’t have to line up to enter it.”
Fake passports? Then that’s the problem of the foreign affairs department or its private contractor to make sure that our passports aren’t easy to read. There could also be spot or random checks: it would not be racist if the authorities were to question a tall African or a Chinese who doesn’t speak Filipino but have Philippine passports.
I estimate that the lines towards the immigration counters would be reduced by half with the simple removal of that requirement to have Filipinos pass through immigration. After all, it is the right of a Filipino to enter this country.
If he needs to have his passport stamped because it might be required in legal case he is involved in, he can have the option to do so. This should include OFWs. If they need to have proof of their return, they should be allowed to get such documentation at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration even weeks after their return.
Why do we need to have our passports stamped anyway? The country you departed from to return to the Philippines had your passport already stamped as “departed.” Isn’t it obvious, or provable in a court case, that you returned to the Philippines if your passport doesn’t have any “exit” stamp by our authorities or an entry stamp by a foreign country?
Is this needed in order to capture those who fled the country because of some criminal case, real or imagined?
C’mon, the wealthy and powerful have been able to do that anyway, and they’re the only ones who would want to risk entering the country in order to take care of their assets. Think of tycoon Edgardo Cojuangco. Do you think that former Comelec chairman Andres Bautista would want to surreptitiously return to the country, to patch things up with his irate wife?
I cannot fathom why even a citizen has to have his photo taken at the counter when returning — which takes time and therefore another source for lengthening the queues.
I hope President Duterte, as Arroyo did nearly two decades ago, visits the arrival area of our airport as tourists arrive, so he would see how incompetent his immigration people are. I’m sure he’d be better than Arroyo at knocking those nincompoops’ heads.