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More than 1,000 Filipinos employed in Hong Kong have been unable to leave the Philippines since February 2. Photo: Facebook

Coronavirus: Filipino workers stranded in Manila ask World Court to overturn Duterte’s Hong Kong travel ban

  • More than 1,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong as engineers, pilots and domestic helpers have been unable to leave Philippines since February 2 due to coronavirus ban
  • They have asked the International Court of Justice to pressure the Duterte administration into a ‘partial lifting or easing of the onerous travel ban’
More than 1,000 Filipinos employed in Hong Kong but banned from going there by Manila over the Covid-19 outbreak have asked the World Court to pressure the Philippine government to let them return to their jobs.

In a Thursday letter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the workers appealed for “urgent intervention after our government unfairly and unjustifiably violated our right to travel and resume our employment in Hong Kong”.

Manila on February 2 announced a ban on all travel to and from mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected almost 65,000 people around the world and killed almost 1,400. There have been three confirmed cases, including one death, in the Philippines so far.
Explaining President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision at the time, immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said the ban included Filipinos departing for the mainland or its special administrative regions. “The ban does not specify exceptions, hence all Filipinos regardless of visa type will be banned.”

Philippine officials at odds over Singapore ‘virus travel ban’ extension

In their letter to the International Court of Justice, the workers described themselves as “Filipinos in Hong Kong but now stranded in Manila”. “More than 1,000 Filipinos, employed in Hong Kong as teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, journalists, pilots, flight attendants and domestic helpers, were caught flat-footed while on holiday here in the Philippines,” they wrote.

Edward Borja, one of the three signatories of the letter, told the South China Morning Post he was a swimming instructor in Hong Kong who had been “stranded” in Manila with his family for 12 days. He was due to report back to his job on February 2.

Borja, 52, said he and the other workers wanted to write to foreign media about their plight but were advised by a friend to write to the World Court instead. He and other Hong Kong workers have formed a Facebook group, #StrandedPH.

In their letter, the Filipino workers asked the International Court of Justice to pressure the Duterte administration to “undertake even a partial lifting or easing of the onerous travel ban” and to pledge not to take away “the basic human rights of its citizens of travel and livelihood”.

Lauro Baja, former permanent representative of the Philippines to the United Nations, said the World Court – which settles disputes between states – had no jurisdiction in this case.

“I doubt if it is the right venue, there are other international mechanisms they can turn to,” he said. Baja suggested the workers go to the International Labour Organisation, although “the filing is an extreme move, maybe premature. I can foresee that in a matter of days the ban will be lifted.”

Philippines’ one-China travel ban extends workers’ coronavirus anxiety

The workers may also have an unlikely ally in the shape of the Philippines’ outspoken foreign minister Teodoro Locsin Jnr.

In a February 3 senate hearing, Locsin said he favoured letting Filipinos return to Hong Kong because, having at least had a holiday back home, “they can die happily”.

“Their employers want them to go back, because the domestic helpers in Hong Kong are well treated, they are not treated savagely as they are in other countries,” he said. “In Hong Kong they are cherished. And Carrie Lam has asked, ‘Please can they come back?’”

Should “something happen” to the Filipino workers once they were sent back, Locsin said he was confident in the medical facilities of the Chinese government, calling them “superior to any country in the world”.

He compared the current situation to the one faced by Filipino workers looking to visit home from Libya last December, when some government departments had considered preventing them from going back to their jobs.

“My argument was, if we don’t let them come home for Christmas and they stay in Tripoli they will be killed [there],” Locsin said. “But if you follow me and you let them come home and let them go back to their jobs, supposing something happens to them, well, they will die happily because they spent Christmas with their family.”

The Philippines health department had on February 10 said Taiwan was included in the ban “as part of the restriction on China” but after Taipei responded by warning it would consider “countermeasures”, Manila lifted its curbs on Friday.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the government’s Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF) had made the decision after evaluating Taiwan’s measures and protocol to prevent the virus from spreading.

Health secretary Francisco Duque had earlier said the IATF would review the restrictions, adding: “I will present the risk assessment later [and the task force will decide] if we should exclude Taiwan and Hong Kong, or if we should include Singapore.”

Foreign secretary Locsin tweeted this morning that he would not support a travel ban “to and from Asean Singapore”.

“A ban should hinge not on the incidence and number of infections or fatalities but on the demonstrated capability of the state concerned to contain the disease and strictly regulate ingress and egress from its air and seaports,” he wrote.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Filipinos ask World Court to overturn Duterte travel ban