“It is not for the DFA to raise an alert level and declare that there is a directive for ‘voluntary repatriation.’ What should our OFWs do? Who should they call? Where should they go?” – Migrante International
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA -– To leave or not to leave Syria, that is the question.
Contrary to reports of the Department of Foreign Affairs that overseas Filipino workers in Syria do not want to leave, Migrante Middle East said there are many who are calling on the Philippine government to immediately bring them home.There are 17,000 OFWs in Syria, 15,300 are women.
Migrante coordinator John Leonard Monterona said that in talks with an OFW based in Syria, it was revealed that more OFWs are desperate to come home and avoid the escalating conflict in the said country.
Monterona forwarded to Bulatlat an Mp3 file of his conversation with OFW Judith Pingol, 41, who originally hails from Manila. Pingol works as a domestic worker for a Syrian family based in Homs, northwest part of Syria. She arrived in Syria in 2008 and has already completed her employment contract.
According to reports, Homs is among the places in Syria where there are heavy clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces.
Monterona explained that he got OFW Pingol’s mobile number from another OFW who is currently staying at the Philippine Embassy’s Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC) in Damascus. Pingol is reportedly asking for help from the embassy because she wants to leave as soon as possible.
“The peace and order situation in Homs is getting worse as clashes happen on an almost daily basis. We hear reports of increasing number of casualties,” Pingol said. “It’s terrible here. Every day we can hear guns being fired; we hear reports of people getting killed. We don’t leave the house anymore. We stay indoors out of fear for our safety.”
Pingol said there are at least 300 OFWs in Homs.
“Some fellow OFWs have already been taken by their employers to relatives living elsewhere. Many employers themselves have left the country,” she added.
Asked with whom she is staying now, Pingol said, there are only two of them — herself and the elderly woman she is looking after.
Pingol said her family back in the Philippines is aware of the situation in Syria, but she has not said anything about how grave it is.
“I don’t want them to worry,” she said.
When Monterona asked the OFW if the Philippine embassy in Syria is giving any assistance, she answered that embassy officials do call them, advising them to take extra precautions. This moral support, Monterona said, seemed to be the extent of the Philippine authorities’ assistance.
According to Pingol, many OFWs in Syria want to leave. “We want to go home,” she said.
When Monterona asked Pingol how she thought the embassy could arrange to rescue OFWs like herself who are stuck in Syria when there’s increasing conflict, the OFW gave a wistful answer.
“Those at the embassy said they are unable to come here. They said we OFWs could get on a taxi and go to Damascus. Some of us OFWs believe that the embassy should make the effort to come and rescue us,” she said.
Repatriation assistance to all distressed OFWs
According to Monterona, the Philippine embassy currently finds it very difficult to put together an evacuation plan in areas where there is ongoing conflicts such as Homs, Latakia, Banaas and Dara’a.
“But then again, Migrante has been asserting that the Philippine government should form an evacuation plan at the soonest possible time. We first said this when the conflict in Syria first erupted. We called on the Aquino administration and the DFA to get an evacuation plan ready and make sure it is ready for immediate execution. We also said it was not right for the government to sit back and wait for the situation to worsen,” he said.
Monterona nonetheless said Migrante is constantly communicating with the Philippine embassy in Syria and the DFA so they could all coordinate in finding means to evacuate the stranded OFWs.
“We are quite certain there are also OFWs trapped in other places in Syria,” he said. “The Philippine authorities both at home and in Syria should not be dismissive because of the seriousness of the situation. They should get their act together and arrange for the efficient and immediate evacuation of our kababayans in Syria.”
Monterona said it is the responsibility of the Philippine government to help OFWs and provide for their repatriation if and when necessary regardless of the reason.
“For the most part, no OFW wants to leave the countries where they have been deployed to work because they want to help their families back home and send them money. So it is a general rule than when an OFW calls for help and wants to be repatriated, it is for an important, urgent and justified reason,” he said.?
Another report has it that as of August 17, another 40 OFWs have gone to the embassy in Damascus and asked to be repatriated. A radio report quoted Ambassador Wilfredo Cuyugan as saying that the embassy was already working for the same, although he was said to have clarified that the 40 OFWs want to be repatriated because of labor-related problems. Cuyugan said there are at least 1,000 to 2,000 Filipinos staying in Latakia City where there are also strong clashes between government forces and protesters.
According to the official, a rapid response team has been sent to check the situation of the OFWs in Latakia.
OFWs don’t want to leave?
According to latest reports from the DFA, no OFW in Syria wants to leave the country despite the Alert Level 3 raised over the country because of the ongoing unrest.
Raul Hernandez, spokesman of the DFA said the mandatory repatriation for an estimated 17,000 Filipinos, mostly domestic household workers in Syria, was declared last year. None had reportedly responded to the call.
Hernandez said OFWs in Syria still feel safe despite the DFA’s warnings that the dangers are rising as the conflict worsens in Syria. “All the same, voluntary repatriation is still in place,” he added. He also said the DFA has a contingency plan to force repatriate the OFWs if needed.
Again in direct contradiction to the assertion of the DFA official, Migrante Middle East said there are at least 100 OFWs in Damascus already wanting to leave and have been calling for help for the last six months.
These OFWs are staying at the embassy’s own FWRC which, Monterona explained is a half-way center providing temporary refuge for run away and distressed female OFWs.
“Many of them have been staying there for the last three to six months. Some have been there for a year. Many of them ran away from their former employers because they were abused in various ways — exploited, sexually harassed, starved. They have been constantly calling on the embassy to help them return home,” Monterona said.
Monterona said that as early as two months ago, Migrante made the call to the embassy to arrange for the repatriation of the OFWs staying at the FWRC.
“There is something wrong about how the embassy and labor officials continue to fail to meet with the former employers of our kababayans and to negotiate with the local authorities to expedite the speedy repatriation of the OFWs. It’s taking six months to a year before they could be repatriated,” he said.
Monterona explained that the Philippine government can and should arrange for the issuance of travel documents for the distressed OFWs so they could fly home.
“If the Aquino government can commission a chartered flight for the OFWs in Syria, then it must do so without further delay,” he said.
Not another Libya
In the meantime, the leaders of Migrante International said the DFA and the Philippine embassy and consulate in Syria have failed so far to provide concrete and solid directives to OFWs regarding how they can be assisted.
“It is not for the DFA to raise an alert level and declare that there is a directive for ‘voluntary repatriation.’ What should our OFWs do? Who should they call? Where should they go? It’s the same for their families here – who could they go to for assistance or assurance that their relatives are safe? The situation is turning out to be similar to what happened to OFWs during the height of the crisis in Libya,” said Migrante International chairman Garry Martinez.
Martinez said both the embassy and consulate in Syria are located in Damascus “which is hundreds of kilometers away from the affected areas.”
“Alert Level 3 has been raised and the Aquino government says that it will shoulder the costs of the repatriation of any OFW who wants to leave. But what will the officials in the embassy and consulate do exactly in the meantime — simply wait for the OFWs to pour into the office doors?”?
Martinez said they hope that the situation will not be “another Libya” wherein thousands of Filipinos were left to fend for themselves because the embassy was too far from their locations and embassy hotlines did not work. He said most of the OFWs in Libya were stranded in conflict-torn areas; some were forced to brave the violence in the streets and take their chances as they struggle to reach the borders where embassy officials said they would be waiting to provide assistance.
The labor leader also said there should also be clear directives for OFWs who are not members of the Overseas Workers Welfare Assistance (OWWA) and those who are classified as “undocumented OFWs.” Only a few hundred OFWS in Syria are registered with the OWWA.
In the meantime, Martinez said their MENA (Middle East-North Africa)/Sagip Migrante Hotlines are still open. OFWs and families may contact Migrante through mobile phone number 0932-3995952 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. He said that all complaints, inquiries and reports will be forwarded immediately to concerned government agencies.