The results of a poll recently released by the US-based Gallup Organization say that some 700 million people worldwide would move to another country if they could.

No, Filipinos didn’t lead the pack, despite the 2007 finding that nearly 20 percent of the population would take the next plane for another country — any country — if they could, and Philippine airports’ being choked daily with the 6,000 people who’re either leaving for jobs abroad or permanently relocating elsewhere. Ahead of everyone else was the population of sub-Saharan Africa, of which 38 percent was most anxious to pack up and go.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a vast region south of the Sahara desert which includes practically every country (50) in the continent except the six countries that comprise North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Western Sahara).

With a total population of around 650 million (or some ten percent of the world’s total), the region includes some of the poorest — and most volatile and conflict-ridden — countries in the world, including such headline grabbers as Somalia and the Congo.

Sixty percent of all people with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — are from the region, with an estimated 22 million men and women infected out of the global total of 32.9 million. Seventy five percent of all deaths from AIDS worldwide occurred in the region in 2007.

With poverty, AIDS, ethnic cleansing, and such other woes as piracy and the proliferation of armed groups of various stripes as part of daily life in many countries of the region, it’s a wonder that the number of those who want to leave isn’t higher.

In contrast to Sub-Saharan Africans, Asians wanted least to leave, with only one in ten of those polled saying they would, despite the number of Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Indians. Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Filipinos, etc. who’ve left their countries to drive cabs in New York or to scrub toilets in London.

As a sub-group, Filipinos are among the most likely Asians to leave. Some go as mail order brides who end up sitting out winters in the US mid-West, others as truck drivers and construction workers braving improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Large numbers of professionals, especially the doctors and nurses of which the Philippines has a shortage, also leave each month for jobs in other countries. While others leave as immigrants, the most preferred country being the United States, where there were 600,000 documented Filipinos in 2008, practically everyone who leaves for the US, Canada or any other developed country would prefer to stay there permanently.

As for the undocumented — the “TNTs” of Filipino migration lore — they’re not only in the United States but also in places as diverse as Italy, the Middle Eastern countries (Dubai and Saudi Arabia, for example), and even Croatia.

Despite what seems to be the obvious answers (poverty, limited economic opportunities) why Filipinos leave has been a perennial subject of debate in talk shows, newspaper columns and academic forums.

Some commentators attribute it all to greed. One broadsheet (not the BusinessWorld) excoriated a soon- to- be medical graduate who was planning to immediately leave for the United States for wanting to live in luxury and for his lack of patriotism, in a display of the self-righteousness the more comfortable in these parts share — “comfort” being defined in terms of a house in a (flood-prone) Manila suburb, a car in the garage, and a six figure salary at least.

The migration-as-greed-thesis does have some validity — but only in some cases, in which leaving the country for, say, the United States, is primarily driven by the immense propaganda impact of Western, mostly US, cultural fare to which allegedly “English-speaking” Filipinos are exposed 24/7. While more and more Western countries are adopting stricter immigration laws, the TV shows, movies and music they blanket the world with daily continue to entice millions with dreams of an earthly paradise in New York or Sydney.

But while among the lower middle classes the desire for some level of luxury otherwise unattainable in the Philippines moves some Filipinos who’ve had some education to leave, at least one other factor accounts for middle class migration. It’s the desire for order and predictability, which in turn has a bearing on a family and its children’s future. If you can’t predict what will happen next year, or even next month, planning for the future doesn’t make much, or even any, sense. (Those who invested in college assurance plans, for example, found this out soon enough when the companies they had put their money in went bankrupt.)

One Filipino academic, asked why he moved to the US, quoted Benito Mussolini’s boast about fascist Italy: at least the trains run on time. Indeed the trains run on time, the mail’s delivered on schedule, and the garbage collected regularly in such places as much of Europe, the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada as well as on that emerging destination of choice, New Zealand. But it does come at a price, among them having to live with racism and random violence, among others.

If some Filipinos do leave out of choice, many more do so because they have to. To this category belong the tens of thousands of migrant workers from poor families who can’t get jobs in a country where development has been at a standstill, or who do have jobs, but still can’t provide their families with the medical care, shelter and education to which every human being is entitled. More and more of these are women, and they’re the ones who’ve had to bear long hours of work, abuse, and even being beaten and murdered in some cases for the sake of their parents, siblings, husbands and children back home.

Mail order brides are on the other hand not always solely driven by dreams of comfort — or even, in some instances, the simple and piteous need to be in a situation where “I can eat enough and what I want”. Many leave for countries they may not even know anything about so they can send home something for brothers, sisters and parents. They’re not Out There in search of a place where the trains run on time and the mail’s delivered on schedule. They’re there because they need to be.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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