POSTSCRIPT / August 12, 2021 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Taliban sends OFWs fleeing Afghanistan

FILIPINOS who used to work with American contracting firms in Afghanistan were among those forced to flee the embattled country as Taliban fighters continued to attack and take over areas left vulnerable with the withdrawal of the US military.

Some of the displaced Filipinos have found their way into neighboring countries, including the United Arab Emirates, which is already hosting some 679,820 Filipinos who form 6.1 percent of the Emirate’s largely expatriate population, and 21.3 percent of Dubai’s population.

The Filipinos’ escape to safety while awaiting a chance to fly back to the Philippines has been complicated by the risks and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could also happen that some of them want to look for other jobs abroad instead of heading home.

Reuters reported yesterday that Taliban insurgents tightened their hold on captured territory as civilians went into hiding. A European Union official said the militants now control 65 percent of the country after a string of gains, while the Talibans claim 85-percent control.

The White House said Tuesday it did not see a Taliban takeover of the entire country as inevitable. In Kabul, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad warned that any government that comes to power through force won’t be recognized by the international community.

As the fight to control Afghanistan rages, China has been moving to fill the space left by the US. The South China Morning Post has quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying his group welcomes Chinese investments in reconstruction and guarantees the safety of investors and workers.

Even as concern grew about the Kabul government’s ability to stay in power, the SCMP reported that the Taliban saw China as a “friend” and was hoping to talk to Beijing about investing in reconstruction “as soon as possible”.

The spokesman was further quoted as saying that the Taliban would no longer allow China’s Uyghur separatists, some of whom had sought refuge in Afghanistan, to enter the country. He added that the Taliban would stop al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group from operating there.

 Dubai layover for displaced OFWs

SOME Filipinos working with contractors that powered the logistics of America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan now find themselves stranded on an indefinite layover in Dubai without a way to get home, the Associated Press said in a report written by Isabel Debre.

She reported: “After nearly two decades, the rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan has upended the lives of thousands of private security contractors from some of the world’s poorest countries — not the hired guns but the hired hands who serviced the American war effort. For years, they toiled in the shadows as cleaners, cooks, construction workers, servers and technicians on sprawling American bases.

“In the rushed evacuation, scores of these foreign workers trying to get home to the Philippines and other countries that restricted international travel because of the pandemic have become stuck in limbo at hotels across Dubai.

“As the US brings home its remaining troops and abandons its bases, experts say the chaotic departure of the Pentagon’s logistics army lays bare an uncomfortable truth about a privatized system long susceptible to mismanagement — one largely funded by American taxpayers but outside the purview of American law.”

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DEBRE continued: “While it’s unclear just how many remain stuck abroad after the evacuation, an AP journalist saw at least a dozen Filipino contractors for engineering and construction company Fluor stranded at the Movenpick hotel in Bur Dubai, an older neighborhood of the city-state.

“The US military’s Central Command declined to comment on private security contractors, referring all questions to their companies. The US military’s contracting office and the Philippine consulate in Dubai did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the stranded Filipinos.

“With the US set to formally end its military mission at the month’s end, most of these workers have since made it home on flights arranged by their employers — the private military behemoths that over years of war won Pentagon logistics contracts in Afghanistan.

“But other employees, brought first to Dubai on their way home after an abrupt departure on June 15, weren’t so lucky. The Philippines, along with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, halted flights to the Emirates in mid-May over fears of the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus and repeatedly renewed the travel ban.

“Thus began a seemingly interminable layover that some Filipino workers described as one of anxiety and unrelenting boredom. The contractors spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the precariousness of their situation.

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“DRAWN to Afghanistan by the promise of steady employment and wages far higher than in the Philippines, several of the stranded Fluor contractors spent years working in construction, equipment transport, visa processing and other military logistics.

“Some worked at Bagram air base, the largest military compound in the country, and at Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan. They had nothing to do with combat operations but described nonetheless facing rocket attacks and other risks of war on base.

“With their cash dwindling over the two-month layover, most said they could not do anything but wait. They while away their time watching TV and video-calling with family in the Philippines from the hotel, where Fluor provides daily meals.

“Construction giant Fluor, the Texas-based firm that was the biggest defense contractor in Afghanistan, said later that ‘we continue to do everything we can to repatriate all employees required to leave Afghanistan.’

“Fluor blamed virus-related travel restrictions for the troubles, said it was caring for everyone affected and promised to ‘continue to work closely with the US government to remove these barriers as quickly as possible.’”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 12, 2021)

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