Aquino orders BOC: Only suspect OFW boxes must be opened
President Aquino on Monday ordered the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to refrain from opening “balikbayan” boxes, except when the boxes pose a threat to public safety.
Finance Secretary Cesar V. Purisima told Inquirer business editors and reporters in a roundtable interview Monday night that the President, in a meeting with him and Customs Commissioner Alberto D. Lina on Monday afternoon, “emphasized that OFW (overseas Filipino workers) families view the balikbayan box as an integral part of the family relationship to nurture loved ones at home and as a tangible sign of their love and concern for their family members.”
Purisima said the President ordered the BOC to inspect balikbayan boxes “in a manner that maximizes public safety while assuring the broader public that their boxes are not subject to unauthorized tampering.”
Specifically, the President’s instructions, according to Purisima, were:
“First, there will be no random or arbitrary physical inspection of balikbayan boxes. Moving forward, all containers of balikbayan boxes should undergo mandatory X-ray and K-9 examination—at no cost to the sender or the OFW. Only in cases where there are derogatory findings from the X-ray or K-9 examination will there be a physical inspection of goods.
“Second, in the event of a physical inspection, the [BOC] will request that an Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) representative or a designated officer of an OFW association be present, with provisions for CCTV (closed circuit television) monitoring of the inspection areas.
“Employees who violate these protocols and engage in pilferage will be prosecuted and punished.”
“We encourage the public to submit videos and photographic evidence of illegal acts to the commissioner of Customs,” Purisima said.
“In this manner we are confident that public concerns will be addressed while enhancing the state’s capacity to fulfill its obligation to our people. In the coming days, the Bureau of Customs will be holding a demonstration or walk-through of this system for the media so that the public can see how it works,” he said.
According to Purisima, the President “also emphasized the reality that more often than not, the only people who know what are in the boxes are the people who send them and the family members who receive them.”
“But there have been instances when unscrupulous individuals have used balikbayan boxes to break the law, and placed the greater community at risk. For example, gun parts, ammunition and gun accessories were found in seven balikbayan boxes, 81,529 tablets of antianxiety drugs were misdeclared as food supplements in November 2014, 413 Casio G-Shock watches, and even a custom Harley Davidson Chopper motorcycle of a Hollywood scriptwriter in 2011, among other high-end car parts, were also delivered through balikbayan boxes,” Purisima said.
“Therefore it is incumbent on the state to uphold its duty to protect our people. But in doing so there should be no contradiction between the need to ensure the implementation of the law, the promotion of the security of the country, and the rights and privileges of our people,” he said.
“At present, there are an estimated 1,500 containers of balikbayan boxes a month, translating to around 18,000 containers a year, or around 7.2 million boxes. Inspections are made on the basis of actual intelligence of a potential violation or threat,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, in Cebu City, the President told reporters that he was meeting with Purisima and Lina to review the new BOC balikbayan policy that had drawn opposition from OFWs and lawmakers.
He said the primary purpose of the new BOC policy was to help in the campaign against illegal drugs and to prevent the entry of guns, ammunition and even smuggled motorcycles.
“Some reportedly dismantle the motorcycles they call big bikes. They will divide the parts and place these in different boxes to avoid paying a fine,”he said.
Aquino said the BOC explained to him that X-ray machines would be used to examine the contents of balikbayan boxes. The boxes will be opened only when the X-ray shows something suspicious.
He said independent observers may be tapped to remove suspicions of theft of some items inside the balikbayan boxes.
In Manila, Lina said the random checks on balikbayan boxes would continue, adding there was nothing irregular about the BOC initiative.
In a TV interview, Lina said it was part of the bureau’s functions to conduct the inspection under the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines.
The clampdown on balikbayan boxes was meant to check the smuggling of contraband, particularly drugs and gun parts, he said.
He claimed, among other things, that some erring freight forwarders “have resorted to using the balikbayan boxes to smuggle contraband into the country through fake consignees or the insertion of smuggled items in shipments.”
These forwarders and brokers, whom he did not identify, “are now being watched by Customs,” he said.
Don’t touch boxes
The BOC plan, announced last week by Lina, drew widespread protests from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Several lawmakers have also denounced the BOC and called on the agency to back off.
Officials like Sen. Grace Poe and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said they don’t want the BOC to touch the boxes.
“First of all, this gives our government P26 billion in funds,” Poe told reporters at the University of San Carlos.
She also pointed out that the BOC lacked personnel to open the boxes.
Poe said it would be better if the BOC would just purchase more X-ray equipment rather than open the boxes individually.
In Davao City, Duterte said the BOC had become heartless when it decided to pry open balikbayan boxes in search of smuggled items and in its bid to raise revenue.
Duterte admitted that balikbayan boxes, which have been tariff-free since the time of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, could be used to transport contraband but he said this method could not surpass the bulk of smuggling by unscrupulous traders.
“They failed in stopping the smuggling of rice, pork meat, chicken, garlic and onions. Why don’t they address these problems first?” the mayor said on Sunday.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the BOC should be “circumspect” in subjecting balikbayan boxes to more intensive inspection than before.
In a statement, she said that as the guardians of the country’s trading gates, the BOC did have the power to inspect and apprehend contraband or illegal and prohibited goods upon entry in Philippine ports.
“Thus, the discretion largely rests upon them and the Department of Finance. But again, they should be circumspect so as not to antagonize the feelings of our OFW countrymen and their families since the OFWs have already been used to this traditional practice of minimal BOC scrutiny on personal imported packages so long as these are not in commercial quantities,” she said.–With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada and Jerome Aning in Manila; Nestor Corrales, Inquirer.net; Carmel Loise Matus and Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas; and Karlos Manlupig, Inquirer Mindanao
Originally posted: 09:12 PM August 24th, 2015
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