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Migrant Worker’s Tale

She stood in the great yard of Bangkok Hilton. Instead of a smiling friendly woman greeting “sawasdee kha”, stern stocky woman ushered Jane to Rm 1.1 along with other women with different nationalities who were tried for various crimes.  On her arm were three pieces of thin fabric that would serve as her beddings. Jane wore a brown blouse and skirt, an issued uniform. Her few belongings and the clothes she wore two days prior were kept in a locker.

Welcome to the Women’s Correctional Klong Prem Central prison, known as the Bangkok Hilton, a maximum security prison in Chatuchak District, Bangkok, Thailand.

Migration is a woman’s burden
She is Jean Marie Q. Belmonte, 29, a single mother with a 10 year old son. A native of Villanueva, Misamis Oriental, Jean is the  second in a brood of ten, and is no stranger to poverty.

Her father is a retired AFP officer but vices pulled them to poverty. Jean’s mother takes care of her younger siblings, the youngest is eight years old.

“After high school, I started working because my parents couldn’t send us all to school,” Jean said.

She applied as a household worker in the (United Arab Emirates) UAE. When her contract finished, she worked for an Iranian family in Kuwait but was not able to finish the two-year contract because her employers always fought. She decided to go home in 2015.

“I was able to send my siblings to school. My son just turned ten. If I stop going abroad, our future will be bleak,” she lamented.

In May 2016, the friend of her former employer, a Kuwaiti, took her to Thailand to work in his Halal restaurant located in Sukhumvit Soi 1, a business district in Bangkok.

“It was an opportunity I did not want to pass,” Jean said.

The Kuwaiti hired a person to process the business documents, visas and work permits. But these were not finished on time. Jean was given a three month tourist visa. She had to exit Thailand every 90 days for visa extension.

“My employer was tired of it. He decided to sell it to his Emirati friend. He asked me to go back to the Philippines but I refused,” Jean narrated.

The nightmare began
Jean and a fellow Filipina Lilia Mabansay, thought January 10, 2017 was an ordinary working day at the restaurant.  But at 10:30 pm, as they were about to close, Jean saw several police officers on motorcycles stopping in front of their establishment.

The cops entered the restaurant and asked for their work permits. Nothing to show, the two were brought to Lumpini Police Station as a procedure. Their passports were confiscated. They were fined 100,000 baht each for “working without permit”. The next day, their employer with a lawyer from the Emirates Embassy went to see them but were not able to help.

Jean called some friends to raise the money. She bribed the jail guard in Lumpini just to make a call and to have water. Although they were not physically abused, Jean knew that the police took advantage of their situation because of the language barrier.

On January 12, Jean and Lilia were brought to court to set the bail. It was reduced to fifty thousand baht (50,000 baht) each. While waiting for the bail, they were brought to the Women’s Correctional. They were not given an interpreter and a lawyer.

Bangkok prison life
“It was humiliating. All parts of my body were inspected. Even when bathing, we were watched. I met Filipinos with drug charges and theft case,” Jean related.

Every 5:00 am, the inmates wake up for the Buddhist prayers. Routines follow such as bathing, breakfast, exercises, prayer meeting with different religious groups, roll call and body inspections to ensure that no prohibited items are inserted into the crevices of the body.

“We don’t wear panties during the inspection. We wear it inside the cell,” Jean said.

The food was unpalatable. Jean and Lilia tried to eat so they could have strength to face another day. There are also restaurants and stores inside but she wanted to save the little money she had if the situation would come to worse. Filipinos who visited them brought food. The visiting hours is from Monday to Friday at 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. A visit lasts for around 20 minutes.

After seven days, Jean was released at 9:00 p.m. The court order will follow after three weeks which she would then show to the police in Lumpini to release her passport.

Lilia spent 48 days in prison for working without a permit and her inability to raise bail. She was scheduled to go home on March 21. But she was sent back to the immigration detention facility at Suan Phlue, because her ticket had already been cancelled, despite the Philippine Embassy’s assurance that it was confirmed.

Undocumented, migrant
Rey Asis of Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants said that people who get trafficked or become undocumented are usually blamed.

“The lack of opportunities in their home countries and poverty are among the problems which caused the phenomenon of forced migration,” Asis stressed.

Member parties of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) must monitor compliance to CEDAW which include obligations to protect women migrants in their jurisdiction despite their status as documented or undocumented, according to Ellene Sana of Center for Migrant Advocacy.

On April 28-29, the ASEAN Summit will be held in the Philippines. It is expected that the draft instruments on the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrants will be finalized.

At night, Bangkok skyline is dotted with colorful lights; alive, inviting. Somewhere in the city, Jean looks at the glass window but she barely sees the light.

Update on the Cases of Jean Belmonte and Lilia Mabansay
Lilia Mabansay stayed another week at IDC until the airfare was raised. Escorted by Immigration official to the airport, Mabansay was deported on March 28.

In a statement, the Department of Social Welfare Department (DSWD) through its Social Welfare Attache Office (SWATO) has provided Mabansay with psycho-social counselling and provided her transportation assistance including funds for incidental expenses when she returned to her family in Iriga City.

Jean’s case was followed closely by the DSWD and the International Organization for Migration-UN  (IOM). Secretary Taguiwalo personally met Belmonte on March 31 at the IOM office in Bangkok with a Philippine Embassy official. IOM and the Philippine Embassy worked with the Thai Immigration on the processing of Belmonte’s departure to Thailand. IOM provided her airfare to Cagayan de Oro City. She was deported on April 4, 2017. Jean was given $200 cash grant and will be given a reintegration fund of $1,000 for livelihood or vocational/technical training.

This story is originally published in Philippines Graphic on April 6, 2017.

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About Eunice Barbara Novio

Eunice Barbara C. Novio is a published literary author who also works as U.S. Correspondent for Inquirer.net.