By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Migrante International continues to call on the Benigno Aquino III administration to hasten its process of repatriating overseas Filipino workers (OFW) caught in internal conflict-ridden Syria. It called the government’s repatriation efforts “slow, sporadic and passive.”
After a dialogue last week with officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Migrante International chairman Garry Martinez said several reasons were clearly determined as behind the inefficiency of the government’s operations to rescue the OFWS. The group also came out with a list of demands and proposals that seek to protect OFWs in the event that the conflict in Syria escalates and worsens.
According to Migrante, the Philippine government’s Alert Level 4 declaration was essentially futile because it was done in the absence of more active cooperation and coordination with the Syrian government and Ministry of Labor in repatriating OFWs.
“Because the Syrian government ‘does not recognize that it is at war,’ the Aquino government resorted to negotiating directly with Syrian employers who in turn demand thousands of dollars in deployment costs. This is seemingly in payment for their efforts to send their Filipino employees home,” Martinez said.
Martinez pointed out that the process has proven to be painstakingly slow.
“This is a case wherein it’s quite obvious that the Aquino government failed to invoke and assert its own policies . It also failed to invoke governing international laws concerning the immediate repatriation of migrant workers in times of conflict, imminent threat or violence,” Martinez said.
He cited the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families , Article 16, No. 2 which states that migrant workers and members of their families shall be entitled to effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or private individuals, groups or institutions.
Both Syria and the Philippines are parties to the ratification of the Convention.
Funds for OFW rescue misused
Migrante also said the Aquino government’s “twisted priorities” in utilizing funds originally intended for the rescue and assistance of OFWs in need is also to blame for the slow repatriation process of OFWs from Syria.
“Instead of hiring local lawyers to negotiate with Syrian employers, the government opted to transport additional personnel to man its embassy and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office-Overseas Workers Welfare Administration posts. This entailed a lot of expenses, and it will eventually reveal itself to be another exercise in futility,” Martinez said. “No matter how many personnel the government deploys, their mobility and effectiveness are limited because they are unable to enter conflict-ridden areas that have been closed off even to diplomats and officials,” said Martinez.
He also pointed out that the situation is made even worse because OFWs who are in need of rescue are reportedly being required instead to “escape from their employers, take a cab to the embassy, and the embassy will reimburse their cab fares.”
“That is the most reckless and foolish advice the Philippine embassy could give to our OFWs,” he charged.
OFWS don’t want to be rescued
For its part, the DFA has previously explained that it would cost some P200 million ($ 4.65 million)) to repatriate all the 4,557 registered OFWs in Syria. In a press briefing, DFA secretary Albert del Rosario said that each OFW in Syria needs to secure at least $4,000 to cover deployment costs as well as airfare.
The DFA also said some 5,443 OFWs in Syria are categorized as illegal workers because they have failed to register with the authorities. This illegal status, the DFA clarified however, will not mean that the DFA will not help them be repatriated. In any case, the agency went on to announce that majority of the 10,000 OFWs in Syria do not want to leave and return to the Philippines.
In a more recent report, the Philippine Embassy in Damascus said 37 Filipinos were repatriated last February 13 and arrived in the Philippines the following day.
All of the 37 are women, and 20 were overstaying workers. The latter were kept in Kaffarseuseh detention while their papers were being processed by the Philippine embassy team. In the meantime, 17 were also distressed Filipino women who were temporarily sheltered at the embassy’s halfway house while officials negotiated with their Syrian employers and with the Syria authorities over the issuance of their visas.
Six of the OFWs came from Homs, one from Hama and another one was from Daraa. These governorates are currently identified as conflict-stricken areas in Syria.
Since March 2011, the DFA has been able to repatriate 913 OFWs from Syria.
Lack of coordination
In the meantime, Migrante has also called the attention to what it alleged was the obvious lack of coordination between concerned agencies in charge of repatriation, namely the DFA and the OWWA. It said the standard computation for deployment costs set by the DFA and OWWA vary. This raises the alarm for possible corruption or abuse by some government officials.
“In separate dialogues, the OWWA said it had set the average deployment cost at $2,500 per OFW while the DFA pegged it at $3,000 to $4,000. There’s a big difference between the two amounts. We are very bothered by this because we have also received complaints from returned OFWs who suspect that their deployment costs were being pocketed by some abusive and corrupt government officials. The Philippine government should be more transparent on this matter,” Martinez said.
The labor leader also said even the figures given by the DFA and OWWA of the total population of OFWs in Syria are conflicting.
“How can they coordinate and implement repatriation efficiently when they do not even have their basic facts straight? On the whole, there’s virtually no information on the real situation of Filipinos in Syria. The Philippine government has announced that the conflict is only concentrated in four towns – Homs, Hama, Idlib and Daraa – where repatriation efforts are solely in place. They say that other areas are not affected by the conflicted, but we have received reports that conflict and violence have reached even Damascus and other parts of the country,” he said.
Martinez also questioned why mobile phones of OFWs are being confiscated inside Filipino Workers Resource Centers (FWRCs).
“When we asked the DFA they said it is mainly a POLO-OWWA policy. Yet we fail to see the rationale of confiscating mobile phones and shutting off our OFWs from their families and the rest of the world. How else could we know what their real situation is in Syria?”
He said the confiscation of mobile phones in FWRCs is a direct violation of the fourth Geneva Convention, “Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”, which states that individuals who do not belong to the armed forces or take no part in the hostilities should be protected and enabled to exchange family news of a personal kind and/or “helped to secure news of family members dispersed by the conflict.
Lastly, the group said the Aquino government’s refusal to take a position condemning the continuing military intervention of the United States government and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) serves to endanger the lives of tens of thousands of Filipinos in the country.
Migrante International has already called on its chapters around the world to condemn and oppose US-NATO’s plans to escalate attacks against Syria for territorial and economic motives, at the expense of Syrian nationals and migrant population.