FOR a majority of our OFWs, coming home is a joyous affair. The entire clan prepares a homecoming befitting a rock star as many of our OFWs have been away for several months and sometimes, years. Eager to see and embrace a father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter, OFW families go to great lengths to celebrate the return of a sorely missed loved one.
But there are some of our kababayan-OFWs for whom a homecoming is not as festive as they would like. Often compelled to return to the country due to illness, contract violations, abuse, mistreatment and similar misfortune, our migrant workers’ arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) is often a low-key, solitary and at times, even “secret” affair. There are no family members holding name placards at the arrival area, no jeepload of relatives jostling for space to catch the first glimpse of their OFW kin.
It is during these trying times that the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) takes up the cudgels for our OFWs’ missing family members. Although we know we cannot take the place of their loved ones, our OWWA airport staff are on hand to help our distressed kababayans get through their harrowing experiences abroad.
As the primary responders on the ground for our distressed kababayans, OFWs are attended by OWWA personnel from the moment their plane lands at NAIA. For distressed or displaced OFWs, our people at the airport serve as the Filipino migrant workers’ first point of contact with the government’s welfare team in their so-called “country of origin.”
Trained OWWA personnel methodically go through the tedious, at times taxing and strenuous procedures associated with airport assistance in order to lend a helping hand to our distressed OFWs. Led by repatriation or “repat” guys (as we commonly call them) stationed at the OWWA counters inside the NAIA terminals 1, 2 and 3, on weekdays, weekends, and yes, holidays, including the entire Yuletide season, our distressed OFWs are plucked and segregated from the horde of travelers so that they may be individually attended to by our personnel. Complementing the team at NAIA are OWWA responders on duty 24/7 at the agency’s main office, who are on “standby” and “on call” mode, ready to be dispatched to the airport should the need arise.
The objective of this unique OWWA airport assistance is to provide a stress-free arrival for our distressed kababayans considering what they’ve been through at their jobsites. And since our repatriated distressed OFWs all look forward to a well-deserved rest, upon the release of their documents from the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Immigration at the airport, those living in the provinces who are unable to immediately return home are accommodated at the agency’s Halfway Home in Pasay City.
While at the OWWA shelter, they are oriented on the programs and services provided by OWWA, such as psycho-social counselling, legal advice, livelihood programs, etc. Meanwhile, cash-strapped OFWs are given transportation assistance and brought to bus terminals or seaports for their onward trip home.
For an OWWA newbie like me, being thrust into the forefront of the agency’s repatriation activities is a welcome challenge as well as an eye-opener. The herculean responsibility associated with OFW welfare and labor-related cases is stressful to say the least. But the “thank you” of one distressed OFW ecstatic to be home is reward enough for me, and a motivation to outdo myself every time.
Bringing our OFWs home, however, isn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. It takes a lot of preparation and coordination starting with our Repatriation Assistance Division (RAD). There is never an idle minute in the RAD office where OFW clients, mostly distressed, and their families, seek OWWA’s help with their relatives’ problems abroad. The RAD’s welfare case officers are on hand to attend to their various concerns and needs. If the problem involves our OFWs overseas, this means coordinating with our welfare officers assigned to our embassies or consulates in different parts of the world.
OWWA’s day-to-day exposure to the issues and concerns raised by OFWs or their families have trained our welfare officers in dealing with the distressed OFW clients and/or their next-of-kin (NOK). To us, each OFW client is as important as the other. The huge turnout of people asking for OWWA’s help is reflected in the volume of clients visiting the OWWA office every day. And in order to resolve cases promptly, we have learned to be pro-active and to resolve matters as quickly as possible.
This exposure to the myriad of OFW problems and concerns has helped OWWA acquire a certain amount of expertise in repatriation activities. In fact, OWWA was instrumental in repatriating OFWs from war-torn countries such as Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc.; the repatriation of migrant workers due to the outbreak of the bird flu epidemic; and more recently, the repatriation of stranded/displaced OFWs in the Middle East due to the fall in oil prices.
But more than just repatriating our distressed kababayans safely, it is reuniting them with their family and loved ones that matters most to us since they’re the reason our OFWs left the country in the first place.