Inconvenient to be Juan

by Mary Jacquiline Romero on 18 February 2012

I will write now while my “wound” is fresh, before physics (if not my two-year old son!) will take over. Do not be misled by the title. Even now with the Corona circus, I do not abhor being a Filipino. My scientific interests have led me far from home, but I can assure you, I am a Filipino through and through. Rightly or wrongly, I have high hopes for physics in the Philippines, and someday I will go home for good and contribute the best I can. For now, I am just an overworked and underpaid post-graduate student (It’s the same wherever you are, really!) trying to narrow the chasm between herself and a PhD Physics degree. Three and a half years have really been a breeze. Now, I am about to close that chasm, and forevermore attach the coveted “PhD” to my name. That is: if I don’t get a heart attack from the single, most unnecessary trouble that I face as a Filipino: visa applications!

I have just been to a visa application center that is an hour away (I know it sounds petty but when one has been here for a while, that is already far!), where I was advised not to proceed with my application. As to why not, that is another story. (Why on Earth would their staff have requirement details that do not appear on the website at all?) The more important question is: Why do I have to apply for a visa in the first place? I will just attend a two-day meeting. I have not even set time to do a tour. For a duration of stay that short, not everyone has to apply for a visa: nationals of 43 countries are exempted from the trouble! I have to apply for a visa because I happen to be Filipino. More than that, because the Philippines is in the list of “special countries” (the words of the staff member who checked my requirements), my application, had I proceeded, could take as long as three weeks to process. Goodness knows whether my visa will arrive on time. Enough said.

Mobility restrictions were first institutionalized in 1920 in the Conference on Passports, Custom Formalities and Through Tickets, just after World War I [1]. Back then, visas were free and have the same duration of validity as the passport — simple. Over the years, the system has gone more complex (if not ridiculous) for many reasons, but primarily to discourage illegal immigrants. I am in no position to question this global mobility regime: I am no expert in policies. To cite an example, I am assuming there is a good reason that the number of countries facing visa restriction in the Schengen area (73 during its inception) has increased to 132 in 2001 [2]. The threats of illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration are perhaps overblown, but nonetheless real. I do not call for the abolishment of visas, I just wish for reciprocity.

The Philippines does not require visas from citizens of 150 countries for short-stay visits (up to 21 days). As a Filipino, I can travel visa-free to just 43 countries, which is sort of pathetic. It does not take a genius to see the disparity: the status quo is highly unequal. There are many factors that led to this and I know it is not entirely the fault of the Philippine government that this is the case. I just hope that somebody somewhere is working to make things better. Visa-free travel to 150 countries will be welcome news to travel-loving Filipinos (who can afford it!). To some of us, maybe even just a handful of strategic, mutual visa-free agreements (emphasis on strategic) will already make a huge difference. At the risk of sounding selfish, it saves me some trouble, at least.

The Philippine government recognizes there has been a brain drain for decades, and there are programs in place to curtail this. I have nothing against those who have decided to remain abroad because it is human nature: we seek to be where we think we will be better off, whatever that means. Perhaps for a scientist, that means where there is funding for scientific pursuit and a critical mass of peers in roughly the same field to discuss ideas with. Given that the government cannot guarantee these conditions to Filipino scientists, I mightily hope that it at least offers us a little bit more mobility. Most scientists, especially those in the developed world, take it for granted, but mobility is just as vital as experiments and theories.

Having said this, I of course have toyed with the idea of becoming a British citizen and swearing allegiance to the Queen. It is a tedious process, but the reward is not having to think of visas for all eternity, not to mention free health care! Many times I have thought about it, and many times I have decided against it. There are many things difficult with being a Filipino scientist but there is nothing wrong with it, and I will not stop being one. I went overseas with the decision that I will come back, and I have not changed my mind thus far. It’s more fun in the Philippines, it is true, but there are also a lot of inconveniences. I have chosen to be a scientist because science is universal and knowledge knows no boundaries. I will wholeheartedly be inconvenienced for many things, but please, not with visa applications. So to those who can do something about it, please:

Open the world to Filipinos (scientist or not), quite literally.

[1] M.B. Salter, “The global visa regime and the political technologies of the international self: borders, bodies, biopolitics”, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. 31.2 (April-June 2006): p167.

[2] E. Neumayer, “Unequal access to foreign spaces: how states use visa restrictions to regulate mobility in a globalized world”, Trans Inst Br Geogr NS 31 72–84 (2006).

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