OFWs in Libya: Once again, in harm’s way


The spiralling violence in Libya has forced the Philippine embassy in Tripoli to close. Its staff has been relocated to Tunisia, leaving behind members of the Rapid Response Team that was deployed by the Department of Foreign Affairs to help in repatriating the Filipinos who want to leave.

The DFA has raised alert level 4 for Libya, which calls for mandatory repatriation. But only 207 of the 13,000 Filipinos there have signed up for evacuation. The majority prefer to ride out the strife than leave and abandon their jobs.

Practically all of our countrymen in Libya are migrant workers employed in construction sites, oil fields and medical facilities. A handful are married to Libyan nationals and would not want to be separated from their families.

For decades, Libya has been one of the plum Middle East destinations for overseas Filipino workers. Moammar Qaddafi had welcomed the OFWs’ contribution in transforming the former Italian colony from a desert wilderness to an emerging regional power. (The former House Speaker Jose de Venecia liked to boast that as a peace envoy he crossed the Libyan desert to meet with Qaddafi and convince him to open his country to Filipino workers.)

Even when Qaddafi became an international pariah for providing safe haven to assorted terrorist organizations, Filipino workers were in demand in Libya. As many as 30,000 Pinoys were employed there before the Qaddafi regime was smashed in 2011.

Since then, the country has become a patchwork of semiautonomous regions ruled by militia groups. The central government in Tripoli never assumed full control, and the militias clashed with each other for territory and influence. Libya was a powderkeg waiting to be lit.

An indication that the security situation was deteriorating surfaced in September 2012, when extremists stormed the US consulate in Benghazi and killed three Americans, including the ambassador. The attack shocked the US, who was clearing a path for democracy in post-Qaddafi Libya.

Things continued to slip after that as fighting between rival factions grew fiercer.

The clashes in the past two weeks were the most violent since 2011, with an Islamist-led coalition of militants laying siege on the airport in Tripoli. The fighting has left close to 100 people dead and shut down the airport. Several countries, including the Philippines, have advised their citizens in Libya to leave while they still can. The only way out now is by land to neighboring Tunisia, or across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

Libya’s slide to chaos is another glaring example of a democratic experiment gone awry. We saw it first in Iraq, where the US thought it could plant the seeds of democracy after weeding out the deeply rooted Saddam dictatorship. The Washington-propped Baghdad government is now fighting for its life as the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria pushes towards the capital.

In Libya, the West tried to bring together the militias into a workable coalition that would wield some kind of central authority. That has not happened. The militias, who had briefly joined forces to bring down Qaddafi, are now more focused on setting up their own power zones than joining a national assembly. The group controlling the oil fields in eastern Libya, for example, wants full independence from Tripoli.

Against this backdrop of impending war, Filipinos are reluctant to leave Libya. Among them are the 3,000 doctors and nurses in the hospitals in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Our government is trying its best to convince these holdouts to leave, but it knows fully well it cannot force them to. Unless they are offered a more attractive option, they will continue to risk life and limb to earn money to send home.

We praise them as modern-day heroes, yet we leave them in harm’s way.


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