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'Age of migration alarm'
« on: July 04, 2007, 07:47:04 AM »
By Juan Mercado

"While coasting on tourist visas, some seek foreigners to marry, preferably of similar national ancestry, so they can stay for good. Migrant money buoys the economy back home. Migrant departures split parents from children. And lofty talk of opportunity abroad mixes with accounts of false travel documents and sham marriages."

Over eight million Filipinos today work in 162 countries. A number seek to marry foreign citizens, of Filipino ancestry, to get residence. Overseas Filipino workers' (OFWs') remittances topped $12 billion last year. And family abandonment cases are rising. So, the paragraph above is about the Philippines, right?

Wrong. This is an excerpt from a New York Times report on migration ripping West Africa's Cape Verde. It also offers a glimpse of 200 million migrants worldwide recasting societies in a planet "where borders are closing." An archipelago, like the Philippines, Cape Verde is Africa's "Galapagos of migration," writes Jason De Parle. Isolas de Galapagos (Islands of the Tortoises) are desolate Pacific islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador. British buccaneers in the 17th century used them as a base. But their plant and animal life enabled the naturalist Charles Darwin, in 1835, to shatter the old belief that "species remain immutable." Galapagos showed that different species, over time, adapt to their environment.

Is the Philippines the "Galapagos of migration" in Asia? New York Times Magazine titled De Parle's earlier cover story on Filipino OFWs: "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves." It tracked three generations of a Pasay City swimming pool cleaner's family who became OFWs. "In no other sizeable country do remittances loom as large as 14 percent of national GDP… But no country ever broke free from penury just by remittances."

Asians accounted for $53 billion of the $127 billion that migrants sent home in 2004. If one tacks on funds sent through "informal channels," the total now probably exceeds $300 billion. That's almost triple the world's foreign aid budgets combined.

On average, the monthly OFW packet is $300, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) found. The money repairs run-down houses, buys subdivision plots, pays for medicine and tuition, etc. It also snaps up cell phones, fancy clothes and, in some instances, mistresses, karaokes and booze. "Sapagkat kami ay tao lamang."

Nearly half of migrants from poor nations trudge to other poor nations, De Parle observes. Chinese shopkeepers chase markets on Cape Verde. As Zimbabwe crumbles from the Marcos-style governance of Robert Mugabe, it drives thousands next door.

For both "sending" and "receiving" nations, migration is front-burner issue. Immigration law reforms to cover 12 million illegals in the United States collapsed. Catholic priests from Poland flood into Ireland. British Broadcasting Corp. reports that last year, 3,200 out of 8,000 UK nurses flew to Australia, due to National Health Service budget cuts. Over 165,000 Malaysians cross the Johore bridge daily to jobs in Singapore. This is the "Age of Migration," an academic says.

It's also "the age of migration alarm," De Parle notes. Even before Sept. 11, hurdles were growing, like the "3-S Strategy," the ADB noted. Visas go only for "skilled workers for short-term employment in specific sectors." Language skills are tested and visa processing is longer, costlier.

"European ships patrol African coasts to intercept human smugglers and new fences are planned along the Rio Grande between the US and Mexico," he notes. "Countries that want migrant muscle and brains also want more border control … and fear bonfires of religious and cultural conflict."

More migrants today are women. Marlou Schrover of Leiden University notes that in migration history, men, as well as the poor, the desperate and the exceptional attracted more attention than other migrants. And the "death of distance" due to the jet, Internet, telephone, etc. made cultural differences smaller.

The desire to experience migration's economic rewards is "imploding." That stokes the frustration of people desperate to migrate but who cannot. "What characterizes the world today is also the feeling of involuntary immobility," says Dr. R. Carling of Oslo's International Peace Research Institute.

Migration supplies rich economies with brawn and brains of migrants. Remittances feed and shelter the poor, underscoring family devotion. But the constant emphasis on departures also strains family bonds and erodes marriages. It increases inequalities between migrants and those who can't leave.

A country that can't hold its best and brightest compromises its future. Such countries find they must reinvent themselves as nations beyond borders. Migration drains the Philippines of essential skills, the ADB cautions. And spoon-feeding individuals or governments put off tough reforms.

"Relying on remittances -- and the prospect of going abroad one day -- can alienate," De Parle notes. That alienation finds its expression in song. In Cape Verde, the song "Sodade" conveys "longing, longing, longing for my island." And De Parle remembers Filipino OFWs in Dubai belting out, "It's So Painful, Big Brother Eddie," a 1980s Tagalog song "that immortalizes every Filipino migrant's fears." Since we never got our act, at home, together.

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