Three years after The Hague ruling in favour of Manila, Duterte faces impeachment threat over fishing deal with China.
The Philippines Bureau of Immigration (BI) has announced the deportation of nearly 3,000 “erring Chinese” nationals for violating the conditions of their stay.
The announcement is seen as an act of damage control after President Rodrigo Duterte administration officials were accused of selling visas in a multimillion-dollar scheme.
Earlier, opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros revealed that in 2017, Duterte-appointed officials amassed as much as 40 billion Philippine pesos ($833m) in bribes, mostly from Chinese nationals who wanted a seamless visa approval upon their arrival in the capital Manila.
On Tuesday, BI Commissioner Jaime Morente announced that a total of 2,736 Chinese citizens were ordered to leave the country immediately.
They were reportedly granted visas from January to October this year upon arrival, but failed to leave on their scheduled departure date.
Under Philippine law, those who were granted visas upon arrival are not allowed to extend their stay beyond 30 days.
“More than half of those who were ordered to leave were blacklisted from our country,” Morente said in a statement.
“While some were unable to leave due to circumstance – following the cancellation of many flights due to the pandemic – those who stayed without sufficient basis were included in our blacklist.”
The visa-on-arrival programme was launched by the Philippine government three years ago to attract Chinese tourists and tour groups as part of a push for closer economic and political ties with Beijing under the Duterte administration.
Morente did not say how many other nationals violated the rules in previous years and how many were deported since the programme was launched.
According to a May 2020 report, about 90,000 Chinese nationals work in the country’s online gambling industry alone, and many were suspected to have availed the programme, skirting the more complicated labour visa application process.
Online gambling operation is banned in China.
The Department of Tourism also reported that 1.74 million Chinese nationals arrived in the country in 2019, pumping as much as $2.3bn into the Philippine economy.
Morente said the programme accounts for “only around 5 percent” of total Chinese arrivals in the Philippines.
“Majority secured their visas from our foreign posts abroad,” he explained.
But opposition Senator Hontiveros said contrary to those claims, as many as 3.8 million Chinese nationals must have paid the 10,000 pesos ($208) bribe to immigration officials since the visa programme started in 2017.
Marc Red Mariñas, an appointee of Duterte’s former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, was identified by witnesses as the mastermind of the scheme.
Mariñas has denied the allegations during a Senate hearing last week.
The Philippine National Bureau of Investigation has also launched a probe into the scandal. It found out that even an immigration bureau security guard, who is suspected of being part of the operation, had earned as much as $20,000 in one year based on his statement of assets and liabilities.
The BI suspended the visa programme around the time that the coronavirus pandemic flared up in China.
In a televised address on Tuesday, President Duterte promised to carry out an investigation into corruption in all government agencies.