DFA not in crisis mode
Migrante also criticized the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for not being in a “crisis mode.” Martinez said when they went to the DFA offices recently, they found that the department had not set up any system to address the effects of the crisis in Libya on OFWs.
“Employees simply told us that that the personnel in charge was already deployed in Libya. There was only one person assigned to handle the calls for assistance and appeals of families of OFWs in Libya; this was a lone case officer who was also in charge of Syria, Israel and Dammam, Saudi Arabia,” Martinez said.
Martinez reiterated its call to the families of OFWs and even to the repatriated OFWs from the conflict-ridden country to coordinate with their MENA (Middle East – North Africa) crisis hotline and share any information on OFWs in Libya. Apart from contacts with Filipino priests in Tripoli, the organization is also trying to build communication lines with OFWs, particularly those in hospitals and evacuation sites. The MENA crisis hotline numbers are 0932-3995952, 0921-2709079. They can also be reached through email@example.com.
OFWs trapped in Syria told to ‘stay put’
In Syria, OFWs said to have been repeatedly making a plea for repatriation has been told to “stay put” by Philippine officials there.
Migrante-Middle East coordinator John Leonard Monterona said three OFWs in Syria Thelma Inoselyas, Rowena Ugay, and Judith Pingol called him and narrated how embassy officials told them to stay in Syria.
The three are based in Homs in the northwest part of Syria where there had been heavy fighting between anti-government protesters and Syrian military forces. Homs is about 140 kilometers from Damascus where the Philippine diplomatic offices are located.
Ugay told Monterona that she called the Philippine embassy the other day to renew her plea for assistance as she wants to be repatriated, only to be told by an embassy official to “stay put.”
“They told us to go to the embassy in Damascus, but we don’t have our passports with us and we’re afraid that we might be arrested by rebels. There are so many checkpoints,” Ugay told Monterona.
Ugay said her employer has already allowed her to go home, but said that her passport was at the local agency in Damascus. It was difficult to arrange for an an exit clearance because of the worsening peace and order situation in Homs.
“We really want to go home but no one is helping us here,” Ugay said.
Monterona said that during his conversation with the three OFWs, he found out that there are at least 35 of them who have called for help to be sent home to the Philippines, but the embassy has yet to help them be repatriated.
“The heavy fighting between the two camps –the anti-government protesters and Syrian forces – is posing a constraint on the part of the embassy evacuation team to reach out the trapped OFWs,” Monterona said. He said local agencies of the documented OFWs estimated to reach around 1,500 to 1,800 could be tapped by the post to help secure the OFWs.
“The embassy should get the active support from the Department of Labor and Employment, the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices and the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency officials to require the deploying agencies in the Philippines and urge the assistance of its local counter-part agencies in Syria that are holding the passport of the trapped OFWs. Philippine authorities should also try asking the Syrian government to wave its immigration requirement for exiting OFWs,” he said.
In a separate report, the Philippine embassy in Damascus reported that some 108 exit visas for Filipinos have already been processed by the Syrian government. The DFA however, asserted that most of the repatriates availed of the program because of labor-related problems and not because of the conflict in Syria.
DFA recalls official to Syria
Migrante-Middle East, in the meantime, lauded reports that ambassador to Syria Wilfredo Cuyugan has been recalled by the DFA.
Monterona said Cuyugan failed to read the actual peace and order situation in Syria and issued reports that did not reflect the true situation of OFWs there.
“Cuyugan even dilly-dallied and acted too late on the repatriation of about 60 distressed OFWs then temporarily seeking refuge at the Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC) since June 2010 or at the start of the upheaval in Syria. He was really more of a liability to the DFA because he was hardly pro-active in addressing the needs of OFWs who have been pleading to be evacuated,” he said.
Cuyugan, who will be temporarily replaced by Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affair (OUMWA) Executive Director Eric Endaya, is a career ambassador. According to reports, he will remain as chief of mission on floating status pending his new assignment at the DFA main office in Pasay City.