‘A balikbayan box and a prophetic task’

Consultation gets sectors talking about issues of people on the move, prospects for CWWM-PH

A balikbayan box was a silent but loud witness as people working in migration shared stories of pain, triumph and aspiration at the second Churches Witnessing With Migrants-Philippines (CWWM Philippines) National Consultation on March 20-21, 2018, at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Chapel, 877 EDSA, Quezon City. The consultation was jointly supported by the United Church of Canada and the Global Ministries of Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), and United Church of Christ.

Some 58 individuals from churches, migrant-serving institutions, the migrant demographic and their families saw in the two-day event, how, what now seems a cultural icon transformed from a decorative element to a pivotal theater prop to a container for poignant prayers during the closing worship.

The box’s many transitions were intended to always remind the participants about real people caught up in forced migration, noted Rev. Cathy Chang, the Southeast Asia regional facilitator for Addressing Migration and Human Trafficking of the Presbyterian Church (USA) World Mission. “We can agree that forced migration and the labor export policy are enslaving our people,” added Rev. Chang in her biblico-theological reflection expounding on the theme: “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

Listening to her were people from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) member churches, Migrante International, representatives of church-related organizations and migrant individuals themselves, coming from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

“This slavery is holding captive the very people whom you love, your family members, your friends, your kababayan, our kababayan. This slavery prevents people from working here, living here, growing up here, and growing old here in the Philippines. This slavery is what led some of you to work abroad before, and is still leading someone whom you know to work abroad,” she added.

The remarks particularly tugged at the heartstrings of Celia Veloso, mother of Mary Jane Veloso, a human trafficking victim who is languishing in an Indonesian jail and facing the threat of death row. They are a poor farmer family in Central Luzon. Nanay Celia noted during the opening liturgy: “I am again making an appeal to help Mary Jane come home. She has been in a difficult condition in prison. We want her to come home very soon.” Staying for the whole duration of the consultation, she said she owed much of her strength and resilience to the work of the Church. It’s been three years since the stay in execution. Nanay was now using a cane to walk, but she carried the same intensity for her daughter.

To date, there are more than 5,000 people who go out of the country each day, either both as new hires and rehires.

“It’s important to see these narratives and trends as inconvenient truths to stand up against”, said Mervin Toquero, head of the CWWM International Secretariat, in a retrospective of the journey of the organization. The international formation was established in 2008, coinciding with the Philippine hosting of the Global Forum on Migration and Development. It was initiated through the initiative of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and Migrante International. The work of CWWM is a prophetic task of solidarity and accompaniment, noted Toquero. He said there was an organic relationship between people on the move and Church: whenever people reach their work destinations, one of the first places they would visit is a church.

The Philippine formation was launched in 2016. It helped the successful campaign to save the life of Jennifer Dalquez from death row in Dubai. She is set for release after serving the remainder of another sentence. It also adopted the Mary Jane Veloso campaign.

Central to the discussions were international processes and agreements such as the UN Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, led by Ricardo Casco of the International Organization for Migration-Philippines. He presented the Zero Draft Plus and tackled the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. These, along with the Global Compact on Refugees are set for approval during the UN General Assembly and for adoption by states in Morocco later this year.

Casco noted that while these documents may protect migrants, they will be non-binding. He said, too, that changes must happen back home if we want Filipinos to stay: “How will you expect nurses to come back if there are no hospitals being built? Will teachers come back if there are no schools being built?”

The United Methodist Church’s Rev. Marie Sol Villalon, speaking for the Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrants, said the document lacked actionable commitments. Laorence Castillo of Migrante International said the compact must be framed in a rights-based approach. He also raised the failure of the framers particularly in the Philippines to involve grassroots migrants. “In the end, it is the governments, and not the OFWs that will ratify agreement that will come out. There are fundamental contradictions and differences on how we value migration,” he ended.

The balikbayan box reappeared during the OFW-theme play, “Maleta, Kahon, at Karatula” which was rendered by NCCP ministry Teatro Ekyumenikal on the first day. The participants were also invited to write letters for their migrant friends.

In workshops at the conclusion of the consultation, the participants echoed the concerns of the panelists. Elevating ideas from small-group discussions, the group noted among others that CWWM-Philippines should be localized and strengthened to include other migrant serving groups and institutions like schools, hospitals, lawyers, etc. Encouraging the regional workshops, the CWWM-Visayas related their success stories and plans moving forward.

“This is the way that CWWM brings together migrants and communities: As communities of faith working with migrant-serving organizations, with migrants front and center” said Rev. Chang. “We will advocate for protections based on human rights – especially when the governments, bilateral agreements and other institutions have forgotten and failed our people.”