5 immigration officials axed pending probe on VIP scheme for Chinese visitors

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 18) — Five immigration officials at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport have been relieved as the Bureau of Immigration investigates a questionable scheme giving Chinese nationals easy access for a fee, the agency's spokesperson said Tuesday.

Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said all heads of airport terminals as well as travel control and enforcement units were replaced on Monday after the revelation of Senator Risa Hontiveros that Chinese nationals pay ₱10,000 as "service fee" or grease money to receive special treatment from BI officials as they enter the Philippines.

The investigation can be completed in 15 days, Sandoval said, adding the probe may be expanded to other airports.

At the hearing of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, Hontiveros showed screenshots of a group chat of immigration officers where there's a daily list of names of foreigners under VIP treatment and their flight details.

Once the Chinese national arrives, the immigration officer on duty would leave his booth and tell the foreigner to follow him to an office, where the visitor's passport is processed for entry. This is a departure from the standard practice where all foreigners are screened through the Immigration booths in ports, Hontiveros pointed out.

Related: For ₱10,000, Chinese nationals get VIP treatment from immigration

The senator said this scheme is worth about ₱1 billion, computed from about 2,000 Chinese citizens entering the Philippines per day. Citing data from her "informant," she outlined how the money is divided. She said only ₱2,000 paid by each foreigner goes to immigration officers on the ground, while the remainder is split among the foreign tour operator, its partner in the Philippines, and the syndicate running the entire ploy in local airports.

Hontiveros said the ₱2,000 is shared among six bureau officials who are part of the scheme in each terminal at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The immigration officer on duty who assisted the Chinese national would get a third or ₱650, while the Duty Immigration Supervisor will get ₱470. A member of the Travel Control Enforcement Unit would get ₱280; the Operations official, ₱260; the Border Control Intelligence Unit, ₱240; and the Terminal Head, ₱100 per processed foreigner.

This circle also had an agreement that they cannot change the allocations "without the consent of all stakeholders," Hontiveros said. Transactions will be tallied every Wednesday, while payouts would be disbursed every Friday, according to the informant.

The bribe is called "pastillas" because before the upgrade to envelopes, the cash payments used to be distributed to officers rolled inside a sheet of bond paper resembling the wrapper of the milk candy, Hontiveros said.

The senator said there were deductions made for absences, while a ₱2,000 bonus is given to officers who had perfect attendance during a payment period. Free lunch is also provided by the Chinese nationals, she added.

Sandoval confirmed there is an irregularity in the process.

"It's a bit surprising. It's not the normal process... Seeing that they have been checking their mobile phones and records of names of passengers, it's really doubtful," the immigration spokesperson told CNN Philippines.

She said that if an immigration officer encounters a problem with the papers of a foreign national, they should be referred for a secondary interview to understand the details of their trip.

However, she admitted that the money-making scheme of some Immigration officials is not a new practice in airport terminals. Sandoval said they have sacked several personnel and filed administrative charges in 2018 over the same scheme.

"This is very alarming and surprising to find out that these things are still happening despite all the changes that have been made already... The system has been eradicated, but surprisingly some unscrupulous individuals still try to continue the same malpractices," she said.

The BI has created a fact-finding committee that will submit a report on the scheme within 15 days. The Department of Justice said it will supervise the investigation.

"We want to make sure that disciplinary action will be swift and severe ang kanilang penalty," Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said.