Some 5,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Najran City, Saudi Arabia now fear for their lives after Yemeni rebels bombed a Philippine community office in the area on January 5.
The attack has prompted a number of Filipinos to seek repatriation, Susan Ople of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a private group handling cases of distressed OFWs, said.
Ople called on the government to stop deploying Filipino workers to Najran and immediately find a safe shelter for the thousands of OFWs in the beleaguered city, which lies near the Yemeni border. The southern city has been the site of shelling since early last year when Saudi Arabi started its air strikes against Yemeni rebels backed by Iran.
Ople said the city is rocked by dozens of bombings every day as the Saudi Army and Yemeni rebels intensify their attacks.
“Yung mga bomba daw, dati, tuwing araw lang. Ngayon, kahit gabi. Hindi nila alam kung
saan nagmumula. Nararamdaman na lang nila kasi nayayanig na lang kung saan sila natutulog (The bombings used to occur only during the day but now the attacks take place even at nights. They would wake up at nights, jarred by the impact of the bombings),” she told reporters in a press briefing.
“Up to 80 exchanges of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are experienced daily. And yet new hires, mostly household workers, keep on coming to the area without them knowing that the place of work is in the middle of a war,” Ople told reporters. She showed members of the media photos of the OFW center located in a Filipino community that was wrecked by a rocket missile on January 5.
Ople said the government should temporarily stop sending Filipino workers to Najran and to create a team that will assess the situation in the war-torn city.
Four Filipinos are awaiting repatriation. However, their employers are asking $1,500 from each worker to recoup their expenses in hiring them.
“We call on the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to work closely with recruitment agencies and [ensure]the safety of our workers,” Ople, who is running for senator in May, said.
Filipinos who wished to stay in Najran have asked the Philippine Consulate General to deploy a contingency team to assess their needs and help them in case the situation further deteriorates.
“The Philippine Consulate General, through Vice Consul Alexander Estomo, has been visiting Najran. But in and out lang sila… Because of the rising tensions, and the escalating exchange of artillery, ‘yung Filipinos there would prefer to have a permanent contingent or team looking out for them,” Ople said.
Ople was joined at the forum by recruitment agency owners John Bertiz, Jun Aguilar and Lito Soriano. Luther Calderon, leader of a non-government organization dealing with OFWs, was also present.
She also cautioned OFWs in the Middle East to be doubly careful on what they post on social media following the arrest of three Filipinos who were among the 44 suspected terrorists nabbed by Saudi authorities last month.
“It is important that our OFWs be extra mindful of growing security concerns in the region and to avoid any political issue,” Ople added.
Ready to help
Also on Friday, President Benigno Aquino 3rd gave assurances that the government will provide employment to the Filipinos who will be displaced due to the escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Quoting Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, Aquino said the government can take in the Filipinos who will be displaced. About 23 percent of the workers, he noted, are household workers who can be given new jobs, for example in Japan’s economic zones that have been opened up for Filipinos workers.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were strained following Riyadh’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday.
Protesters in the Shiite-majority Iran attacked Saudi’s embassy in Tehran hours after the execution, forcing Riyadh to cut ties with Iran.
On Wednesday, Aquino met with several members of his Cabinet to discuss the growing tensions in the Middle East. He said the country’s embassies and consular offices are reviewing their respective contingency plans.