Embassy closures

My father once pointed out that while in the country, we have the entire government machinery – from the President down to town officials – at our fingertips. Outside of it, that huge, fumbling, monolithic bureaucracy is deflated to fit the offices of the Philippine Embassy or Consulate-General.

Any decision, therefore, to close down an embassy or consulate abroad can never be just a housekeeping, cost-cutting decision. It manifests the physical withdrawal or whittling down of diplomatic interest and kinship, and in this complex world where countries are so interconnected, absence does not necessarily makes the heart grow fonder. It also leaves Filipino workers even more isolated from their government, orphaned by the lack of services that only a full-fledged foreign post can provide.

The DFA said that the decision to rationalize the number of embassies and consulates was arrived at during the 2012 budget deliberations particularly in the Senate. Unfortunately, the last ones to know are the very constituency that these foreign posts were supposed to serve – our OFWs.

According to news reports, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said that six posts are slated for closure in the early part of 2012 and another six posts for 2013. This timetable, he added, could even be accelerated so that all 12 posts can be closed down before the year ends.

Why consider embassy closures at all? Senate finance committee chairman and Liberal Party stalwart Senator Franklin Drilon said these closures would enable the Philippine government to save from Php 100-million to Php 150-million. During the budget deliberations, he recalled having visited a Philippine embassy that was no bigger than a room. He also lamented seeing talented career officials languishing in countries where our national interest is barely served. My belief is that foreign posts that service less than 5,000 Filipinos and with hardly any bilateral trade can be downsized. Embassy closures should be the last resort, to be done as a political statement instead of a fiscal one.

Compared to other countries, our diplomatic reach is not that expansive. The Philippines has 66 embassies, 23 consulates and 4 diplomatic missions. Considering that 10% of the Philippine population is outside the country, the argument should be for the creation of more foreign posts rather than the elimination of a dozen of them. In fact, government spending on OFW programs and services underwhelms considering the consistent dollar remittances of our workers.

According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, money sent home by our OFWs hit $1.8 billion last December pushing the 2011 remittance tally to a record-breaking $20.117 billion!

Surely, such enormous financial contributions represent an economic tide that lifts almost all commercial establishments? Why then obliterate the only concrete and productive source of public service that these OFWs would have and are actually entitled to?

The foreign posts reportedly slated for closure in 2012 are embassies in Venezuela, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Finland; consulate-generals in Barcelona, Frankfurt, Saipan and Palau. For now, the DFA is constrained to release official information, not until all host governments have been duly informed. What about our workers? Shall they, as the song goes, be the last to know?

In Barcelona, Spain, the overseas workers are up in arms after learning from Philippine Ambassador Carlos Salinas that they would have to travel 600 kilometers to the Philippine Embassy in Madrid for consular and other services. The Philippine Consulate in Barcelona, manned by less than 10 people servicing around 25,000 OFWs, shall be closed down by July.

This sad fate also confronts nearly 10,000 OFWs in Saipan. Consul-General Medardo Macaraig shared the bad news with Filipino community leaders during a recent press briefing held at the consulate. He said that the responsibilities of the consulate would soon be transferred to the Philippine Consulate-General in Agana, Guam. The OFWs in Saipan were surprised at the DFA’s decision to close down the consulate.

Governor Benigno Fitial of Saipan said that this decision is unwise in light of immigration reforms in the said US territory that affect thousands of Filipino workers. “This is a period when Filipino workers constantly seek the assistance of the Philippine Consulate in order to ensure that they are in compliance with new requirements brought about by the federalization of immigration,” the governor noted. With the closure of the Philippine Consulate in Saipan, Filipinos there would also be deprived of free training programs and consular services offered on a regular basis by the diplomatic staff and its community partners.

With the impending closure of the embassy in Dublin, over 20,000 OFWs there would have to travel all the way to London just to avail of embassy services. In short, the government would be cutting its costs by passing on the financial burden to our modern-day heroes.

Our OFWs are appealing to the DFA, the Senate, and the Office of the President to reconsider its decision which was arrived at without prior public consultations. Rather than cut down entirely, why not just downsize? Now, is this really too much to ask? (Send comments to toots.ople@yahoo.com. Follow me on Twitter via www.twitter.com/susanople.)

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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