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In an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, countries, including the Philippines, have adopted a variety of measures in order to contain and limit the spread of the virus. One of these measures is the closure of the country’s borders to inbound and outbound travel.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued Foreign Service Circular No. 29-2020, dated March 19, 2020, which temporarily suspended the issuance of visas and visa-free entry privileges, as well as imposed a temporary travel ban for inbound foreigners to the Philippines, save for very limited exceptions, the details of which we will delve into later. The said suspension applies to all foreigners with immigrant, non-immigrant, and special visas, except foreign spouses and children of Filipino nationals, officials of accredited foreign governments and international organizations and their dependents, and foreign airline crew.
In Immigration Memorandum Circular No. JHM-2020-004, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) reiterated the said inbound travel restrictions of foreign nationals even during the implementation of the General Community Quarantine. As a result, foreigners working in the Philippines, who intend to travel in and out of the country, find themselves in a predicament of either staying or leaving, wrapped with the uncertainty and fear of not being able to return and other potential consequences resulting from the restrictions.
It has been almost four months since the DFA and the BI imposed travel restrictions. Filipinos who need to leave the country for business, family, or emergency reasons as well as foreigners who need to enter the country for the same reasons are placed in a quandary given all of the questions surrounding their ability to travel.
Notably, in a seeming shift to gradually re-open the country, the Philippine government issued Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) Resolution No. 52, dated July 6. This effectively lifted the outbound travel restrictions of Filipinos subject to the following conditions:
- submission of confirmed round-trip tickets for those traveling on tourist visas;
- adequate travel and health insurance to cover rebooking and accommodation expenses if stranded, and hospitalization in case of infection, in such amount as may be determined by the Department of Tourism;
- allowed entry by the destination country in accordance with their travel, health, and quarantine restrictions;
- Execution of a Declaration acknowledging the risks involved in traveling, including risk of delay in their return trip, to be provided for in the check-in counter by the airlines; and
- upon return, they shall follow the guidelines of Returning Overseas Filipinos of the National Task Force (NTF).
In a related light, with respect to foreign nationals, pursuant to the aforementioned DFA Foreign Service Circular No. 29-2020, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs or the Undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Concerns may exempt, on a case-to-case basis, foreign nationals from the inbound travel ban. Local companies as well as groups of multinational companies have requested the DFA to allow their foreign national employees, assignees, and business visitors exemptions. In order to apply for an exemption from the DFA, companies must first secure an endorsement from a government agency or the embassy of the concerned foreign national.
One of the government agencies which received requests for endorsement is the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA). Consequently, PEZA issued Memorandum Circular No. 2020-0035 which provides guidelines on requests for exemption from the travel ban of foreign nationals essential to the operations of PEZA-registered companies. PEZA clarified that pending the lifting of the travel ban, the exemption should only be requested for essential and emergency reasons.
Upon issuance of the endorsement by PEZA or any relevant government agency, assuming all requirements are in order and on the basis that the exemption is justifiable, processing of the request for a travel exemption at the DFA takes about one week. Once the DFA approves the request, it will coordinate with the BI on the entry of exempted foreign nationals.
The pandemic has indeed caused a lot of uncertainty even on the matters that seemed so straightforward, such as being able to travel in and out of the country. While we see some restrictions being lifted and the government being more receptive to slowly opening up the economy, we still need to be mindful that it is a long road ahead, both in terms of how to cope with COVID-19, and how the government grapples with maintaining that delicate balance between tightening or loosening travel restrictions that indubitably play a big factor in battling the virus.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. This article is for general informational and educational purposes, and is not offered as, and does not constitute, legal advice or legal opinion.
Tristan Jeremy S. Hao is an Associate of the Immigration Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW).