The first batch of evacuated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from Iraq would be flown to Manila on Sunday, according to Arsenio Andolong, spokesman for the Department of the National Defense (DND).
Andolong on Saturday said the 14 OFWs evacuated from the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, would be transported to Doha, Qatar.
The number of rescued Filipinos could go up, he added.
“This number may increase, however, as the embassy continues to call on other OFWs who wish to come home,” Andolong said in a statement.
Currently, Secretary Roy Cimatu, special envoy to the Middle East, is in Qatar implementing the repatriation on the ground, he said.
Cimatu recently said 1,592 Filipinos in Iraq had signed up for repatriation.
Andolong said Philippine authorities were constantly assessing the situation in Iran, Iraq, Libya and other neighboring states.
The Philippine Coast Guard ship, BRP Gabriela Silang, is now in Malta to rescue Filipinos who were “in danger, to ferry them to safer areas.”
The authorities are closely monitoring Kuwait, which raised its security level to maximum on January 9, Andolong said.
Previously, the alert level within an area covering a 100-kilometer radius from and including
Tripoli, Libya was raised to Level 4, signaling a mandatory evacuation.
Outside the 100-kilometer radius, Alert Level 2 remains, Andolong said.
The DND has urged Filipinos who want to evacuate to contact the nearest Philippine mission.
“We advise our kababayan (countrymen) in Iraq and in Tripoli, Libya, to contact the nearest Philippine mission to facilitate their mandatory evacuation,” Andolong said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines would send personnel to Iraq to assist in the repatriation, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Military ship, air assets and two battalions would help in the success of the repatriation, he added.
Lorenzana said the situation in the area was still unstable and contingencies for massive repatriation were still in place.
Last Tuesday, he said they were in a dilemma because 6,600 OFWs in Iraq and 1,100 in Iran did not want to go back to the Philippines.
“The challenge that we are facing is if the Filipinos might not want to come home,” he noted.
The Philippine government should not limit itself to the security of the Filipinos in the affected countries, Lorenzana said.
“Kailangan, kasi we should not be thrifty o magtipid tayo sa mga kaligtasan ng mga tao natin (We should not be thrifty on the safety of our countrymen),” he added.
Lorenzana floated the idea of hiring cruise ships if there were many Filipinos who want to go home.
“Kung marami talaga ang gustong umuwi, mag-lease tayo ng ano, mag-hire tayo ng cruise ships (If there are many Filipinos who want to go home, we will hire a cruise ship),” he said.
A cruise ship could accommodate about 3,500 to 4,000 people and with the number of Filipinos in the two countries, only two cruise ships would be needed, Lorenzana added
The House of Representatives Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs will hold a special meeting on Monday to tackle urgent concerns of the OFWs in the Middle East.
Committee chairman Raymond Democrito Mendoza said the special meeting was called while sessions are on recess until January 20 to inquire in aid of legislation into updates on the case of slain domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende in Kuwait and the rising tensions in Iran and Iraq.
While the special meeting is not part of the special session that President Rodrgio Duterte has called on Congress to act on, Mendoza added that it might provide more information on the status of the concerned OFWs.
He said his committee would like to know the real situation and the number of OFWs caught up in the Middle East conflict, including the undocumented workers.
“Second, we’d like to know if the contingency plans are in place, making sure that they can come home,” according to Mendoza, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines party-list representative in Congress.
He said they want to know the “conditions of the household workers in Kuwait, considering 200 of them died in the past four years and there is a very good record and statistics [on the bad things that] happened to them… and what steps have been taken especially on the implementation of the MoA (memorandum of agreement) between the Philippines and Kuwait regarding the rights, welfare and security of the OFWs in the Middle Eastern country.”
Among the agencies invited as resource speakers in the special meeting were the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Department of Budget and Management.
Cimatu and Malacañang adviser on OFWs Abdullah Mama-o were also invited, along with migrants organizations, advocates and families.
Meanwhile, Mendoza sought immediate passage of the bill creating a Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment to harmonize concerned agencies to ensure protection and welfare of Filipinos overseas.
House Bill 5832 was passed jointly by the House Committees on Government Reorganization and on Overseas Workers Affairs jointly on Nov. 26, 2019 and is pending interpellations at the plenary level.
Mendoza said the creation of the department recognizes the need to address concerns of millions of Filipinos who are already deployed abroad.
He added that that the bill was not meant to institutionalize exportation of Filipinos abroad but instead make job creation and decent wages within the country a priority.