Remulla sees POGO shutdowns sparking ‘humanitarian crisis’
MANILA, Philippines — The closure of Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos) may result in a “humanitarian crisis” as China has made it hard for its citizens to return to their country after working in online gambling companies in the Philippines, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla warned on Tuesday.
Defending the annual budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the Senate, Remulla said the Bureau of Immigration (BI) has started locating Chinese nationals who were formerly employed in Pogos that were earlier shut down by the government.
He said some 40,00 Chinese could still be working in 216 illegal POGOs, whose permits to operate had already been canceled by the state regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).
However, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said their number could reach more than 100,000, asking the BI to closely coordinate with Pagcor in monitoring former Pogo employees who have yet to leave the country.
“But we cannot immediately stop the operations of all these Remulla sees POGO shutdowns sparking ‘humanitarian crisis’s because it may cause a humanitarian crisis,” Remulla said at the hearing presided over by Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chair of the Senate finance committee.
“The problem we are facing is the protocol of China in admitting deportees because they have specific requirements,” he said.
He recalled that the Quezon City Police District had difficulties in detaining more than 300 Chinese citizens who were arrested after the government imposed a lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
According to the justice secretary, Beijing had been destroying the passports of its citizens who went back home after being employed in POGOs.
“They (former Pogo workers) are also hounded by their government to pay certain fines when they go home,” Remulla added.
“Many of them will consider not coming home a good option for themselves,” he added.
Appeal to China
He said he would immediately meet with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian to ensure that Chinese POGO workers who were already set for deportation would be brought back to China as soon as possible.
“We’re meeting with (Huang) to make sure that the protocols of deportation are followed properly so we can start deporting these people,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III called on China not to discourage its citizens from returning home, saying the Philippines should not carry the burden of taking care of illegal aliens.
“China has to do something not to disincentivize their people from going home voluntarily to their country. That’s our request to China,” Pimentel said.
“If they scare their citizens staying in our country, they will not really go home,” he pointed out. “China can lessen the reasons for them not to want to go home. In the first place, they left China legally.”
Speaking with reporters after the budget proceedings, Pimentel said declaring Pogos illegal would make it easier for authorities to run after those behind the gambling businesses.
He added that outlawing the Chinese-run gaming firms would be swift if President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. himself would sign an executive order just like what former President Duterte did in pulling the plug on “e-sabong,” or online cockfighting.
“An executive action can actually shorten everything,” Pimentel said.
Public interest in the Pogo industry resurfaced after mounting complaints about the spate of kidnappings involving Chinese nationals.
Just last week, the Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG) of the Philippine National Police successfully rescued 43 Chinese nationals “who were enslaved under human trafficking conditions” at the POGO building of Lucky South 99 Outsourcing Inc. on Fil-am Friendship Highway in Angeles City, Pampanga province.
This prompted the Senate public order and dangerous drugs committee to start an investigation of the reported kidnappings and killings of Pogo workers. Some senators have pushed for banning POGOs in the wake of its high social cost compared to the P6 billion the government earns from them.
Many of the licensed POGO workers have moved to the so-called POGO Island, the biggest commercial complex housing Chinese-run gaming companies and dormitories for their workers.
The 36-hectare property in Kawit, Cavite province, formerly known as Island Cove Resort was sold in 2018 by the Remulla family to wealthy Chinese-Filipino investors engaged in POGO operations.
Considered a major development in the POGO industry, the property along the coast of Manila Bay was transformed into a Pogo complex with offices for operators, dormitories to house the Chinese workers who man the gaming operations, and several commercial and recreation establishments to cater to the needs of the thousands of foreign employees expected to live there.
The idea was to make the people involved in POGOs to work, eat, play and sleep in the complex to minimize the social ills that civil society groups have been blaming on the POGOs.
The facility was reported to be able to accommodate 20,000 to 50,000 workers once fully developed.
Also in July this year, the newly appointed justice secretary ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to stop its operations against Pogos due to reports of extortion and other irregularities.
“I told (NBI officer in charge) Director (Medardo) De Lemos to stop everybody from operating on Pogos because we are getting a very bad reputation on the matter,” Remulla said on the sidelines of a Rotary Club of Manila gathering.
Remulla said these irregularities were “described simply as ‘hulidap.’”
—WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH