“We cannot blame our kababayans if they would opt not to return to the Philippines because no jobs, livelihood and security for their families await them here. The government is also mainly accountable for placing our kababayans in the situation they are in now,” said Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International
By ANNE EDNALYN DELA CRUZ
MANILA — In July, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has raised alert level 4 and imposed a mandatory repatriation to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in Libya. In the same month, two Filipinos have become casualties in the ongoing strife: Antonio Espares, a heavy equipment operator who was kidnapped and beheaded by militia in Benghazi and a Filipina nurse who was abducted and gang-raped in Tripoli. Yet, only 1,625 OFWs of an estimated 13,000 have returned to the country.
In various statements and reports, DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario said the government lamented the low response from OFWs despite its “intensified” efforts for repatriation.
According to del Rosario, the government quite expected the low number of OFWs wanting to be repatriated, as most are afraid to lose their jobs in Libya. However, he still hoped that the OFWs would be convinced to return home.
In a phone interview with Bulatlat, Gil Lebria, one of the handful OFWs repatriated from Libya in 2011, narrated his experience and explained why many OFWs opt to stay in the strife-torn country than to come home to their families.
Lebria said he was not surprised that many OFWs had no interest to return home despite the encouragement from the government.
“There are two reasons: one, many OFWs are still not informed of the repatriation process – they still do not know where to go and who to contact; second, many OFWs would rather risk their lives in Libya than go home to their families jobless,” he said.
Although the government claims that its efforts to save OFWs have been intensified, Lebria believes that it still could have done a better job in ensuring the safety of the OFWs.
He shared that when the conflict in Libya started in 2011, the government did not have a concrete exit plan to offer the OFWs, and there were no identified evacuation centers where OFWs can go to. He said many OFWs went to St. Francis Church, as there was no budget allotted to provide them an evacuation center.
“Nothing has really changed since 2011. I still have contact with other workers in Libya and they still complain of the same things about the repatriation and evacuation process,” Lebria said.
“It is frustrating,” he said, “that the government still does not have a concrete plan for evacuation and repatriation, considering that there are millions of OFWs – many of whom work in conflict-stricken areas like Gaza, Iraq, and Syria.”
Lebria added that despite the fact that billions of pesos are remitted to the country by OFWs, the government could not even provide them security.
Migrante International chairperson shared the same sentiment as to the government’s lack of plan for distressed OFWs.
“Like before, the Philippine government’s so-called mandatory repatriation is not working. There is no active intervention on the part of the Philippine government to locate, secure and ensure the safe passage of Filipinos from conflict areas to PH posts. Aside from announcing it, there remains no clear blueprint from the government on how the mandatory repatriation is supposed to take place,” Martinez said.
Lebria also added that the government has too little to offer to OFWs returning. He said only a financial aid of P10,000 ($227) from Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) will be given. However in 2011, he claimed, not all repatriated OFWs were given the aid.
“We were offered P10,000 ($227) as financial aid from OWWA. But it was not given to us immediately. We had to fight for it,” Lebria said. “In fact, only 450 of the 1,000 OFWs were actually given the financial aid in 2011.”
Aside from this, Lebria said OFWs dread their future when they return to the country. “There are more and more Filipinos who are jobless, even college graduates from good schools. If you do get a job, there is still no assurance that you’ll be regularized. And the pay is so low, it cannot suffice for your needs.”
Martinez agreed that it is understandable if OFWs would fear more for their future than for their security.
“We cannot blame our kababayans if they would opt not to return to the Philippines because no jobs, livelihood and security for their families await them here should they decide to return. The government is also mainly accountable for placing our kababayans in the situation they are in now,” he said said.
Martinez also added, “It is way past the time for the government to simply ‘lament’ that Filipinos are not heeding the mandatory repatriation call. They have crossed that line long ago. The Philippine government’s failure to safely secure our kababayans and to facilitate their urgent mass repatriation has caused the atrocity against one Filipina and the gruesome death of a Filipino. It is now time for accountability, the injustice done to them is the BS Aquino government’s fault.”
Meanwhile, in a statement, Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz said that there are about 979 jobs available for OFW repatriates.
Baldoz said, “There are local jobs for OFW repatriates, and it is unfair to say that OFWs in crisis-stricken countries ‘refuse’ to come home because there are no local jobs available.”
However, she agreed that some OFWs are adamant about refusing to return home because of the difference in pay and benefits.
Lebria, on the other hand, said that although there are opportunities offered by government, some OFW repatriates find it difficult to compete with a younger set of applicants, especially with many local companies setting an age limit to new hires.
He said that, if given a chance, he would opt to work again in Libya than go through the exasperating process of job hunting in the country.
“I’ll surely go back to Libya – more than 100 percent. I need to go back and provide for my family. It may be dangerous, but what is danger if you are going to die here of poverty and hunger?” Lebria said.
OFW Crisis hotline
Meanwhile, the Migrante International, a worldwide alliance of OFWs, launched a crisis hotline for OFWs stranded in Libya and in other conflict-stricken areas in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to Martinez, the group set up the crisis hotline to facilitate calls and messages of distress and emergency from OFWs and their families. He said that all distress calls will be instantly forwarded to the DFA for immediate attention.
The crisis hotline can be reached through mobile number: 0932-3990231 or email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Messages may also be sent through Migrante International’s website: migranteinternational.org.