Three UNISON nurses stranded in the Philippines

COVID-19 has left three nurses, and UNISON members, stranded in the Philippines desperate to return to help their colleagues fight the pandemic. The union is trying to get them back home

Mignun Kim Mier (Kim), Mareter Gabi and Aileen Arancon are three nurses who work for the NHS in Newcastle. Since the beginning of March, the coronavirus outbreak has left them stranded in the Philippines and they haven’t been able to come home.

On 9 March, Kim, Mareter and Aileen travelled to the Philippines together for Kim’s wedding. Three days after they had landed, the government cancelled all weddings and public gatherings. Then, five days later, all flights out of the country were suspended for two weeks.

The women made two attempts to find flight connections to get back to the UK, but as the Philippines extended lockdown and banned all health workers from leaving the country, both journeys ended up cancelled.

After more failed attempts and wasted flight tickets, Kim contacted the British embassy in Manila to see if they could help. The British embassy replied to say they had organised a repatriation flight from Manila to the UK on the 15 April, but for British nationals and permanent residents only.

Kim was told that they would not be permitted onboard. With no commercial flights running, the three women were stuck.

Kim, Mareter and Aileen have lived in the UK and worked for the NHS since October 2017. The three women also live together. Kim, who works in an emergency eye department in a Newcastle hospital, feels terrible about not being able to use her skills in the pandemic:

“I feel so, so guilty knowing that my team are working so hard, that they need me, and I can’t do anything to help. I know how short-staffed they are and it is very, very stressful. I just can’t wait to go back”

Mareter describes similar feelings of obligation and frustration at being stuck so far away: “When I graduated as a nurse, I took an oath to serve and uphold my vocation, even if there are hardships. It is my calling, and I can’t run from it.

“I feel so embarrassed that my colleagues are out there with this virus, and they’re helping people whilst I’m here safe. I want to do something, anything, to help them.

“My parents are afraid for me to go back to the UK, because it’s such a dangerous time to be a nurse. But it’s my profession.”

UNISON believes that migrant workers in the UK should be extended the same protections as British nationals. This is particularly acute for people like Kim, Mareter and Aileen who are a crucial part of our NHS workforce. Their work is a national priority in the response to COVID-19.

The women have since appealed to the British consulate about the chance at getting onto a repatriation flight, asking whether their NHS employment is considered. So far, they have received no response.

Kim says: “It makes me feel sad really, because we’re not British nationals. Even though we told them that we’re NHS nurses, we still are not permitted on the flight.”

The three nurses are stuck overseas in a time where the drastically under-staffed NHS needs all the help it can get.

UNISON have helped Kim, Mareter and Aileen appeal to their local MP Nick Brown, who has escalated the case to the Foreign Office on their behalf.

UNISON’s head of health Sara Gorton says: “Kim, Mareter and Aileen should be brought home. It is shocking that they haven’t been looked after or protected by the British consulate, despite their years of hard work in the NHS.

“Their plight shows the enormous contribution overseas nurses make to the NHS and yet aren’t always treated with the respect they deserve.”

Amidst so much uncertainty, and increasing delays to lockdowns being lifted, the women are now worried about their visas. Their visas expire in October, so they need to be back in the UK before mid-July in order to renew them.

Kim and Mareter trained and worked for years in the Philippines with the ambition of moving to the UK. Mareter describes the process: “Getting to the UK was really hard. We had to do a lot of exams, including English exams, to qualify as a nurse. I wouldn’t want it all to go to waste. I’m very worried about that.

“I worked in the Philippines as a nurse for five years, whilst I was revising for my exams. I had to pay exam fees and pay for domestic flights to different cities to take them.

“Then when I came to the UK, I still had to undergo the OSCE exams to register as a nurse. It was incredibly stressful, I was so nervous because if I didn’t pass, I would have to go back home. It took a lot out of me. When I passed the OSCE exam I cried from the huge relief of it.”

Kim continues: “Training overseas to come and work as a nurse in the UK is really hard work. It takes years, and we took loads of exams. To lose it all would be a disaster.”

UNISON have been the only organisation to listen to Kim, Mareter and Aileen. Kim is grateful for the support: “I just want to compliment UNISON really for being so responsive with all my concerns, I didn’t know where to turn.

“Our managers are being understanding, but our government is no help. It is fixated on all the strict measures. I’ve tried to reach the UK embassy as well, but they’re not helping us either.”

Kim, Mareter and Aileen have booked flights back to the UK at the beginning of June, with a hope they won’t be cancelled. This time, they bought flexible tickets.

“There’s so much anxiety in just waiting with everything being so uncertain,” says Mareter. “We don’t want to just sit and wait here for the pandemic to stop. We’re trying our best to get back, because we genuinely want to put in as much effort to help as we can.”