The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a heavy sense of global discord. State leaders are expected to come up with national policies that would prevent economic collapse and, at the same time, adopt the necessary health measures to combat the spread of the virus. While there have been efforts to contain and minimize the effects of COVID-19, the number of positive cases continues to rise at a rate that seems to be the “largest economic shock which the world has experienced in decades.”

In an address on March 12, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a massive lockdown over Metro Manila. This was pursuant to Resolution No. 11 of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on the coronavirus outbreak, which imposed “stringent social distancing measures” and suspended land, domestic air, and domestic sea travel to and from Metro Manila.

On March 16, President Duterte issued Proclamation No. 929, placing the Philippines under a state of calamity, and imposing an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) over Luzon. Following this Proclamation, the Department of Transportation (DoTr) issued implementing guidelines relating to travel restrictions during the ECQ and limited Philippine airport operations to outbound international flights. Per the directive of the DoTr then, inbound flights may only be allowed for repatriating Filipinos.

In a similar vein, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) also issued Foreign Service Circular No. 29-2020 on March 19, which temporarily suspended visa-free entry privileges and the issuance of visas in Foreign Service Posts. Previously issued entry visas to the Philippines were “deemed canceled,” save for very limited exceptions.

Subsequently, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) issued Memorandum Circular No. JHM-2020-002 on March 20 and imposed a blanket travel ban against inbound foreign nationals, except for foreign spouses and children of Filipino nationals, foreign government and international organization officials, and foreign airline crew.

Four months later, the IATF adopted Resolution No. 56 on July 16, which allowed foreign nationals with long-term visas to enter the Philippines. These foreign nationals include those who possess Sec. 13 immigrant visas, those who availed of the alien legalization program (EO 324 visas), those who availed of the Alien Integration Social Program (RA 7919 visas), native-born visa holders, duly recognized refugees (47(b) visa holders), and those who have acquired permanent resident status by reason of his/her marriage to a Filipino citizen. Prior to arrival, these categories of foreign nationals are expected to have a valid and existing visa at the time of entry, and should have already pre-booked their COVID-19 testing providers and quarantine arrangements in an accredited quarantine facility. Their arrival shall also be subject to the maximum capacity of inbound passengers at the port on the date of entry.

While the gradual re-opening of our borders has allowed long-term visa holders to enter the Philippines, there continues to be a strong clamor for other categories of foreign nationals to be likewise exempt from the travel ban. These foreign nationals include, among others, those holding pre-arranged 9(g) commercial visas, special non-immigrant 47(a)(2) visas, EO 226 visas, Special Retiree’s Resident Visas, Special Investor’s Resident Visas, and dependent visa holders not traveling with the principal. Neither the IATF, DFA, nor the BI has decided on this matter yet, and, as a result, these foreign nationals will have to wait for the eventual lifting of the travel ban in order to re-enter the country. In the alternative, however, foreign nationals covered by the travel ban may secure an exemption from the DFA.

On this note, DFA Foreign Service Circular No. 29-2020 provides that the Secretary of Foreign Affairs or the DFA-Undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Concerns may exempt foreign nationals from the travel ban on a case to case basis, such that its approval shall depend on whether the purpose of their travel is urgent and essential. Employers whose foreign employees cannot re-enter the Philippines have since welcomed this development. With an approved travel ban exemption, foreign nationals whose functions are highly critical and essential to the company may be allowed to enter the country to perform their duties and responsibilities.

To apply for a travel ban exemption from the DFA, the applicant must first secure an endorsement from a Philippine government agency and/or his Embassy/Consulate in the Philippines. The endorsement shall thereafter be forwarded to the DFA for further evaluation. Once the DFA grants the travel ban exemption, the foreign national shall secure a temporary visitor visa (entry visa) at the Philippine Embassy/Consulate at his or her place of residence. Prior to arrival, the conditions set forth by IATF Resolution No. 56 which include, as discussed above, confirmed hotel bookings in an accredited quarantine facility and pre-booked COVID-19 testing arrangements, must likewise be complied with. The applicant must also be mindful of any additional requirements of the airline before boarding any flight to the Philippines.

As with the evolving environment, the corresponding rules tend to be as fluid and organic, which means that anyone who wishes to re-enter must be sufficiently equipped with the relevant information in order to avoid any potential impediment. This all goes back to the question of whether or not it is ripe to completely re-open our borders since such a decision would require a thorough and meticulous risk-benefit analysis. This process must consider multi-sectoral perspectives and ensure that the decision to lift the country’s travel restrictions are aligned with the government’s strategies in battling the virus. In the face of this disquieting situation, we may only hope that the health crisis improves so that we will be able to smoothly adjust and transition into the normal that we continuously try to re-define.

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, nor does not constitute, legal advice or opinion.

Napoleon L. Gonzales III is an Associate of the Immigration Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW).
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