POSTSCRIPT / January 7, 2020 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Evacuating OFWs a band-aid solution

MALACANANG seems to regard the plight of some 8,000 Filipinos caught in the turmoil in Iraq and Iran as mainly a short-term military situation, so President Duterte decided Friday with military and police top brass that evacuation is the best response.

Removing Filipino workers from the area of conflict may be the quickest action at the moment, but a longer-term and more encompassing approach to the recurring job-related problem could have been discussed if other officials and resource persons were consulted.

The basic question that must be answered is why a big number of Filipinos leave home and take chances of looking for work abroad and suffer the concomitant problems that separation from family brings.

We find it unusual that no officials were called to the meeting from the Congress, the departments of foreign affairs, labor and social welfare. Veterans of successful past evacuations in the Middle East could have been consulted also.

The small gathering looked more like a command conference reminding the uniformed service of the President’s instructions on loyalty and mission given in his four-minute address Thursday at the turnover of command of the new armed forces chief of staff.

A Palace announcement said those called to the meeting included Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, newly installed AFP chief Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. and Philippine National Police officer-in-charge Police Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa.

An escalation of Iran-US hostilities looks likely after Tehran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to avenge the killing on Friday of their top general Qasem Soleimani in a US airstrike in Baghdad. Iran could hit US facilities some of which employ Filipinos.

Denouncing Soleimani as a master terrorist, President Trump announced on Twitter that the US will hit 52 pre-selected Iranian targets, including some with cultural value, if the Ayatollah carries out his threatened retaliation.

Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. surprised many when he hailed Soleimani on station dzMM as the “greatest commander” since Julius Caesar. In a tweet, Locsin also said: “He was a soldier not a terrorist. He was a general, possibly one of the best in modern times, and never lost a battle so far as I know.”

When asked, also on Twitter, “Do we have a plan in place if something major happens in the Middle East?” Locsin responded: “We always do. We will get out everyone who wants to get out and return to poverty in the Philippines to stare at their starving loved ones while bullshetters talk about the most dynamic economy in Southeast Asia. Or we will be there with them.”

Still on evacuation, the Philippine embassy in Tripoli, Libya, urged Filipinos there to move to safer places to avoid being caught in the crossfire as forces of military strongman Khalifa Haftar tried to capture the capital.

The embassy’s chargé d’affaires Elmer Cato advised Filipinos to remain on a “heightened level of vigilance” after Tripoli’s only operational airport was shut down after it was struck by rockets Friday. He said the embassy would help Filipinos relocate, get temporary shelter and repatriated.

The embassy rescued eight Filipino nurses on Thursday from a clinic “very near where intense clashes have been taking place.” More than 20 Filipinos have already left their residences in Salahuddin district and are now staying with relatives and friends.

 Updated OFW data needed for planning

PLANNERS can look after OFWs’ welfare better if they had updated data. After all, OFWs are among the biggest buoys keeping the economy afloat. Land-based OFWs in the Middle East alone sent home $6.7 billion in 2018 and another $5 billion from January to October 2019.

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines said there are about 1.2 million Filipinos in the Middle East. But Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has said that since there is no labor agreement between Iran and the Philippines, OFWs in Iran are illegally working there.

Recruitment consultant Emmanuel Geslani said there are more than 3,000 OFWs in Iraq, not less than 2,000 as reported by the foreign office, and around 500 workers in Kurdistan, which he said is “relatively safe.”

He said that other OFWs work for international organizations in the secured Green Zone, and that mostly undocumented domestic workers in Baghdad may need repatriation if allowed by their employers. Some 1,500 to 1,800 Filipinos working on US bases in Iraq are safe, he said.

He cited a DFA Memo Circular in 2014 allowing Filipinos to work for international contractors serving the US armed forces. These companies are obliged to move the OFWs to safer locations if their job sites are threatened.

The POEA has no record of new deployment to Iraq since 2014. Most Filipinos who have slipped into Baghdad undocumented come from Dubai, where international contractors recruit workers for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Former ACTS-OFW party-list Rep. Aniceto Bertiz III, meanwhile, warned: “Hundreds of Filipino sailors on Western tankers navigating through the Strait of Hormuz every day are already in harm’s way, given that Iran has warned of swift and severe retaliation.”

Bertiz noted that Iran is in a position to attack Western merchant ships on the strategic waterway that provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.

“Any eruption of open hostilities in the Middle East involving the US is bound to drag its major allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both of which host large numbers of Filipino workers,” he said.

“In an extreme scenario, even Filipinos in some parts of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar might be exposed to danger, considering that they also host American military facilities and/or personnel,” he added.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 7, 2020)

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