A senior Filipino diplomat will return home to work with migrant workers after six years of service in Dubai.
Paul Cortes, consul general of the Philippine consulate, will leave his post in August after serving his countrymen during the most difficult times last year.
With nearly 680,000 people, the Filipino community is one of the largest in the UAE. It makes up about 20 per cent of Dubai's population.
Mr Cortes worked as a professional ballad singer before carving a career in foreign service. Singing to crowds and understanding their needs has been critical to his success in the past 25 years. As a diplomat, he often walked the streets of Satwa to socialise and speak with fellow Pinoys.
This allowed him to understand their challenges and successes and helped him get a balanced view of expat life in Dubai, Mr Cortes said.
“It is good to understand the vibe there and understand what people are going through, and 80 per cent of our people are having a great time in Dubai,” he said.
“In my time, I have had constant community interaction in places like Satwa and elsewhere that are very popular Filipino communities.
“I enjoy being a part of the hustle and bustle and I will miss hearing their latest success stories.”
In 2020, the consulate received around 100,000 calls for assistance.
Many of those were related to the fallout from Covid-19.
“Early on in my tour, I discovered people thought I could be the key to [solving] all their problems, or a great redeemer of some kind,” said Mr Cortes, who lives in Dubai with his wife and son, 8.
“It has been challenging to dampen the expectations of what we are capable of, without deterring people asking for help.”
At the height of the pandemic, Mr Cortes and his staff delivered food and aid packages alongside Dubai Police.
Covid-19 threatened consular operations during the long summer of 2020. The offices in Al Qusais were shut twice due to an outbreak of the virus.
Like many foreign service officials, the pandemic brought extra strain to Mr Cortes’s role.
“As soon as we feel we are above our community, we become detached from what their needs are,” he said.
“What people want must define our policies. It is important to understand their needs, particularly women and children and minority groups. You cannot do that from an ivory tower.
“It is important to balance the resources given to you by the government and public expectations.”
The most common grievances were related to access to health and dental clinics for those without insurance or legal advice for people in debt or money owed to employers.
Less than 20 per cent of Filipinos living in Dubai approached officials for consular assistance.
In the weeks after international borders reopened, more than 40,000 citizens were repatriated. Most decided to stay and seek the economic opportunities ahead.
Not all those who boarded planes home lost jobs. Many had expired visitor visas and took advantage of an amnesty to leave the UAE without paying overstay fines.
Others took annual leave and have since returned, but the Philippines government has banned travellers from the UAE until June 15 to help curb the spread of Covid-19.
Since the pandemic began, he has assisted in the repatriation of children abandoned by their unmarried mothers for fear of prosecution, and the mothers themselves.
Mr Cortes said the Emirates remains an important destination for migrant workers from his homeland, but not all were aware of potential pitfalls around finance and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
“There is a perceived role of the consulate as a body that motivates our diaspora to become better citizens,” he said.
It can be especially challenging explaining the law and issues around morality, Mr Cortes said..
“[Some] women become pregnant outside of marriage, and that is illegal in the UAE. I have to explain that to their families back home when problems arise," he said.
“There is a continuous flow of people who arrive here and do not understand the legal boundaries, we hear the same stories from many residents.”
One of his proudest achievements has been to create a space for Filipino art, hosting paintings, drawings and photography at consular offices.
He also helped promote the first Filipino film made in Dubai, Lamentasyon, which showed at Reel Cinemas in Deira in April.
While Mr Cortes may not be a full-time singer, he does perform at cultural and heritage events.
“It is rewarding to see these artists now spreading their wings,” he said.
"The community and consulate are always ready to listen to their needs, not always financially but we can link people with a similar goal or mission to develop society.
“The reality is people can come to the UAE very easily on a tourist visa and unfortunately some fall into the same traps that many others before them have.
“It is our government's role to provide a greater understanding of those traps to temper expectations of what we can and can’t do here to help overseas nationals.
“I would tell people planning to move to Dubai to search for something meaningful for them.
“We will try to support them in whatever way we can.”