VISA REVOKED The Bureau of Immigration says foreigners like Otto Rudolf de Vries have no business joining political activities in the country. But for the Dutch lay missionary, defending labor rights transcends politics owing to the “universality of those rights.” De Vries, 62, strikes a defiant pose with Filipino supporters at a recent gathering at Bantayog ng Mga Bayani in Quezon City.—CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
MANILA, Philippines — This Dutch lay missionary and labor rights advocate has made the Philippines his home for 30 years and is pained and shocked at being ordered to leave by the Bureau of Immigration (BI).
The most difficult part of leaving, says Otto Rudolf de Vries, is separation from his close friends, especially the workers and residents of poor communities “who have become very close to my heart.”
“It was a shock for me to hear that I have to leave this country after 30 years of working and living here. In those years, the Philippines has become my home country and my stay has been fully accepted by [many] Filipinos,” De Vries, 62, tells the Inquirer by email.
He says the order to leave is “a very painful matter” for him.
The BI has informed De Vries that its three-member board of commissioners denied his appeal to reverse the revocation of his permanent-residence visa and ordered him to depart in 60 days.
The government revoked De Vries’ visa for supposedly engaging in political activities. According to the BI, the complaint about him from intelligence sources included, among others, photos of him in protest rallies in the cities of Manila and Pasig.
“Foreigners have no business joining such activities as it is a clear violation of their conditions of stay … ” the BI said. “There are no exemptions; even permanent-residence visas may be canceled for the said violation.”
Laments De Vries, who has lived in the Philippines since May 1991: “After 30 years of working [and] living [with] and contributing to Philippine society and the Church, standing with the poor workers and defending labor rights are still considered by the government as ‘political activities,’ denying the universality of those rights.”
BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval said the order to leave was issued on Feb. 26 and received by De Vries on March 5. He has until May 5 to comply or he will be deported, she said.
De Vries has also been tagged an undesirable alien, and his name included in the BI blacklist.
But the missionary thinks the BI order is “without valid and legal cause,” and vows to “continue this legal battle for justice, if I can stay in the Philippines or not.”
He says that, along with his lawyer and Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (Eiler), where he is a volunteer labor researcher, he is looking for the best options to fully utilize the time he is still able to stay, “taking into consideration my own safety and security as well as that of the people I work with.”
“The reasoning of the BI is not strong to deny our motion for reconsideration. I believe that there exists a reason to appeal their denial,” he says, quoting his lawyer.
Sister Patricia Fox
De Vries says that given the political climate, he can better understand his departure order in line with Sister Patricia Fox’s experience.
Fox, an Australian nun who also lived in the Philippines for nearly 30 years as a missionary fighting for justice alongside farmers and the poor, was forced to depart in November 2018 after apparently angering Malacañang by joining protest rallies.
She also worked with the families of the victims of the war on drugs, which has left thousands dead.
The BI downgraded Fox’s missionary visa to a temporary visitor’s visa, blacklisted her, and ordered her deported. She returned to Australia instead of being forcibly removed.
“Like her, I would very much like to continue my mission to live and work among the workers and poor in the Philippines, together with them defending their rights,” De Vries says.
He says he wishes to continue as a lay missionary, “living out my faith through my apostolate among the workers” and contributing to “building the Church of the Poor.”
Workers’ ‘everyday reality’
De Vries says he came to the Philippines from the diocese of Rotterdam in the Netherlands to do pastoral work on the invitation of then Infanta Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen.
“[Labayen’s] appeal to live out the Church of the Poor inspired me to immerse in the everyday reality of the workers. My experiences deepened as I lived with the Filipino workers and these became the source of motivation for me,” he says.
After Labayen’s death in 2016, De Vries sought the pastoral and spiritual guidance of former Infanta and now Caceres Archbishop Rolando Tirona and current Infanta Bishop Bernard Cortez, who, he says, have “consistently stressed the importance of an apostolate for the Church, sharing not only the experiences but also the involvement with their struggle for social justice.”
De Vries has also been involved in the formation of Church and lay people and seminarians for immersion with workers. He himself has worked as a welder, structural fitter and electrician.
He recalls: “I [experienced] the reality of the workers, always as a contractual, often on a contract of less than six months without guarantee of renewal … barely earning the minimum wage. I witnessed how steel factory workers aimed to build a union, but the factory closed.
“I experienced the harsh working conditions in the construction industry [where] labor rights such as the minimum wage, security of tenure and safe working conditions are neglected.”
De Vries’ life as a worker paved the way for him to join Eiler, “an ecumenical service institution for workers” through which he came “to deeply understand that the ties between the Church and the labor movement are indispensable.”
He rues that Eiler is “maliciously accused” of affiliation with “communist terrorist groups,” and says the charge “should urgently be revoked” as “education and research work are not a crime.”
Eiler publishes research and educational modules based on facts and workers’ concrete conditions, he says. “It does not publish propaganda or any materials that support terrorist organizations.”
De Vries says he values the Filipinos’ “extraordinary” hospitality and warmth.
“To live among the poor in their communities and toil with fellow workers as one of them [is] the only life I have known for the past 30 years. I will forever keep close to my heart their insights, hopes and motivations,” he says. “I will carry on their aspirations for a more just society. In this light, it is upsetting that I’m prevented to continue my mission in the Philippines.”