Wide-ranging lobbying efforts led to repeal of travel ban: sources

02/15/2020 10:55 PM
Image taken from ABS-CBN News website
Image taken from ABS-CBN News website

Taipei, Feb. 15 (CNA) One day after the Philippine government's decision to lift the travel ban it imposed on Taiwan, a clearer picture emerged Saturday of the roles played by government, business and labor groups in the successful effort to have the policy reversed.

On Monday night, travel ties between the neighboring countries were thrown into uncertainty when the Philippine government announced that under the country's One China policy, Taiwan would be included in a Feb. 2 directive banning travel from China and its special administrative regions.

Despite the immediate fallout, Taiwanese officials believed that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would respond better if the dispute was handled discreetly, in a non-confrontational manner, according to diplomatic sources interviewed by CNA.

In line with this approach, Taiwan sought to exert pressure through unofficial channels, including the large community of Taiwanese businesspeople in the country, the sources said.

Meanwhile, on the Philippine side Angelito Banayo, the chairman of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), which serves as the country's de facto embassy in Taiwan, took the highly unorthodox move of coming out against the policy's political motivation in a Tuesday column in the Manila Standard.

"Matters of health should be beyond the realm of politics," he wrote, adding that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is "well-controlled and effectively managed" in Taiwan.

This message was reinforced during a cabinet meeting at Manila's Malacañang Palace on Friday, during which MECO Vice Chairman Gilbert Lauengco reported on the outbreak response measures being undertaken by Taiwan's government, Philippine officials told CNA.

In addition to the diplomatic efforts, the policy received significant pushback from impacted commercial and labor groups.

In the Philippines' tourism sector, where Taiwanese are the the fifth-largest group of visitors by nationality, the expansion of the travel ban was met with apprehension over lost revenue.

During a Wednesday hearing in the Philippines' House of Representatives, the country's Department of Tourism estimated that losses from a three-month travel ban on China, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan would likely top PHP42.9 billion (US$849 million).

Since the policy also barred Filipino nationals from entering Taiwan, and mandated 14-day quarantines for those returning from the country, it also posed a significant challenge to the 150,000 Filipino migrant workers in Taiwan.

On Thursday, more than 400 Filipino employees of the Taiwanese company I-MEI Foods submitted a letter to MECO urging Duterte to reverse the travel ban, arguing that it would harm their livelihood, according to a report by the Philippines' ABS-CBN News.

"We, the workers of I-MEI Food Manufacturing Corp. here in Taiwan, are calling and asking our government to allow again Filipino workers to come to Taiwan, especially those who have existing work contracts," the letter said.

Members of the Filipino community in southern Taiwan, meanwhile, issued a recorded video appeal, warning that the ban could result in lost jobs, if Taiwan's government decided to hire foreign workers from elsewhere, the report said.

On Friday night, following four days of intensive lobbying efforts, the Philippine government announced that it was lifting the travel ban against Taiwan.

In a statement, presidential spokesman Salvador S. Panelo said the decision was made following a risk assessment by the country's health authorities, and was based on the "strict measures ... and protocols" Taiwan's government is implementing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said Friday it welcomed the decision by the Philippines, and urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to correct its designation of Taiwan as part of China, which is believed to have informed the Philippine government's extension of the travel ban to Taiwan.

(By Chen Yen-chun, Chen Yun-yu and Matthew Mazzetta)

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