Evacuation of OFWs from Lebanon halted
- Paolo Romero () - August 5, 2006 - 12:00am
The full evacuation of Filipinos trapped in Lebanon ground to a halt yesterday after Israeli warplanes bombed their routes of escape to neighboring Syria, even as Philippine crisis managers made desperate pleas to Israel to spare evacuees.

At the same time, President Arroyo expressed indignation over the deaths of two Filipinas who apparently tried to flee from their employers in Lebanon, who reportedly refused to let them go. She ordered officials to go "house to house" to be able to evacuate all Filipino workers in the war-torn country.

In a televised statement yesterday, the President also made a plea to the Lebanese government to allow Filipinos to leave the country following the deaths of the two domestic helpers.

"Many of our workers are already saddled with extreme fear and anxiety and I ask the employers directly and the government of Lebanon to guarantee their freedom to travel and escape harm," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She also appealed for calm among Filipinos still in Lebanon and asked them to fully cooperate with the crisis team.

"We shall not take any chances with the lives of Filipinos in the face of danger. We have a blueprint for action and resources needed for its implementation," the President said.

She told Filipinos still in Lebanon to "follow our bidding to leave while there is still a window of escape that is narrowing every day."

Vice President Noli de Castro and the rest of the Task Force Lebanon that he heads held a teleconference from Malacañang yesterday afternoon with members of the crisis team in the Middle East. They learned that Israeli warplanes had bombed bridges at Jounieh, Tripoli and Masnaa border crossings with Syria.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said Special Envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis cut short their teleconference to immediately proceed to the border and try to make representations with the Israeli government.

"Actually we already moving 450 (Filipinos) today, but we are now trying to verify where they are, whether they have left the route or they are still there," Conejos said. "Because of the bombing of the bridges, we have to assess the damage first."

He added that they do not know when these bridges can be reopened, "but this development will intensify, accelerate our efforts to try to open new exits. Right now that is the only escape route from Lebanon to Syria."

Because of the bombings, Conejos said Filipinos would have "to stay for a while in Lebanon."

He said Israeli forces are apparently trying to cut off all possible escape routes of Hezbollah militants to Syria, which is reportedly arming them.

Conejos said Israeli forces fortunately did not target the convoy of buses carrying the fleeing Filipinos. Crisis managers had put non-combatant markings, including Philippine flags, on buses and evacuation centers containing Filipinos to avoid being attacked by either Israeli or Hezbollah militants.

When asked about the chances of success of efforts to appeal to the Israeli government to spare escape routes, Conejos said: "This is a military operation, military targets are dictated by them, what we have to do is to face the reality that these things are happening, our job is to make sure that there are other exits open to us."

When pressed whether the government’s two-week window to pull Filipinos out from conflict areas would be set back, he said "two weeks is an arbitrary figure."

"This operation will continue as long as the threat to our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) remains," Conejos said.

Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administrator Marianito Roque said it would take at least three weeks and cost some P2 billion to evacuate all the estimated documented and undocumented Filipinos in Lebanon.

Conejos said that during the teleconference, it was agreed that escape would involve sea routes from Beirut to Cyprus, Beirut to Rhodes in Greece, Beirut to Turkey and from Beirut to Marzan, Syria.

The government, he said, is also readying a ship from the Philippines that would take a 14-day journey from the country to Lebanon, passing through the Malacca Straits, Indian Ocean, Red Sea and finally through the Suez Canal to Beirut.

Conejos said a Greek shipping company also offered free transportation for evacuees in recognition of the good performance of Filipino seamen.

The Prime Minister of Bahrain, he added, also offered free flights and allowed evacuees to stay in the country for seven days before being flown back to the Philippines.
Indignation, outrage
Mrs. Arroyo said the Philippine government was dismayed over the deaths of Mary Jane Pangilinan and Michelle Tomagan, who fell on July 26 and 28, respectively, from the apartments of their employers in Lebanon while trying to escape.

"I express the indignation and outrage of the Filipino people over this incident and I am directing our crisis team on the ground to undertake all means to protect the lives and the human rights of our nationals in Lebanon," she said.

Pointing out that many Filipinos in Lebanon "are already saddled with extreme fear and anxiety," Mrs. Arroyo asked the Lebanese government and employers of Filipinos "to guarantee their freedom to travel and escape harm."

She said she is watching the evacuation timeline and that the "crisis team would go house to house if needed, to get in touch, to account and verify the location of their compatriots and inform them of the proper (means) to get out of harm’s way."

Mrs. Arroyo assured the public that the government has a blueprint for action and the resources needed for its implementation.

"But everybody must cooperate and we must all act to get our act together to make it work," she said.

Conejos said Philippine authorities had launched a massive information drive to be able to reach out to the OFWs and identified Seidon, Zahle, Tripoli and Beirut as "collection points" where OFWs could be gathered and then brought straight to relocation sites for repatriation.

As for the two Filipinas who died, Conejos said they both fell from a high place and that Tomagan even tied sheets to the balcony of her employer’s house just to escape.

Conejos called on OFWs and their relatives to seek the embassy’s help and not flee on their own. He earlier said the Philippines would get the help of the police and security officers in Lebanon to free OFWs being held hostage by their employers.

Roque said OWWA would look into the condition of the victims’ families and see what assistance the government could provide them.
Stranded, abandoned
Meanwhile, four Filipinas stranded at a mountain resthouse in Symposium Alley, Jabal in Lebanon asked the government to rescue them.

Relatives of private nurse Zulaika Limba Latip are seeking government assistance for her repatriation after Latip sent a text message to her sister in the Philippines that the Philippine embassy in Lebanon gave Filipinos there only a week to come forward and be sent home.

Latip said their employer, Abdullah Rafi, brought them to the resthouse for their own safety when the conflict started but would not let them go unless embassy personnel would fetch them.

Latip is with three other Filipinas — identified only as Lilian, Catalina and Norayda — who work as domestic workers.

Latip’s sister forwarded her text message to Helen Dabu, program coordinator of Kanlungan Center Foundation Inc., who then showed it to reporters following a press conference yesterday.

"Their employer fears that the Filipinas might be caught in the crossfire if they go to the Philippine embassy on their own," Dabu quoted Latip as saying.

Meanwhile, an OFW was left on her own in Cyprus following the evacuation of her Lebanese-Australian employers from Lebanon.

The Philippine embassy in Greece assisted 26-year-old Brylyn Vilocis Ecoy of Bacolod, who arrived in Beirut only last July 11 and was evacuated from Lebanon to Cyprus together with her employers on July 22.

Ambassador Rigoberto Tiglao said Ecoy’s employers, who hold Australian passports, immediately flew to Australia and left her on her own in the port of Larnaca, Cyprus.

Tiglao said embassy officials immediately organized Ecoy’s repatriation, with the assistance of OWWA representatives in Athens.

Ecoy was scheduled to arrive in Manila yesterday on board a Gulf Air flight.
Reactions
The militant youth group Anakbayan and other youth and student organizations trooped to the United States embassy in Manila to condemn Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon.

Anakbayan national chairwoman Eleanor de Guzman said the US government "refuses to compel its staunch ally Israel to enact an immediate ceasefire despite overwhelming pressure from the international community."

Congressmen, on the other hand, urged Lebanese authorities to help the Philippine government rescue OFWs forced by their employers to stay despite the continuing conflict with Israel.

Isabela Rep. Rodito Albano III said the government is doing "everything in its power to get them home safe" and will not allow OFWs to be held hostage.

House Deputy Majority Leader Antonio Cerilles said some Lebanese employers could be staying where they are in the belief that the war would not take long.

"This is probably the reason why employers are holding on to their Filipino helpers," he said.

At the Senate, minority leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the chamber will consider approving the P500 million allocation for the evacuation of Filipinos in Lebanon as part of the supplemental budget, but only after OWWA has made a full accounting of its allegedly "missing" funds.

Some P530 million was reportedly diverted from OWWA to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and supposedly used to fund the distribution of insurance cards to indigents before the 2004 presidential election.

Pimentel said the fund transfer is illegal because the OWWA fund is a trust fund set up to meet the needs of OFWs.

The House appropriations committee has approved the P46.9 billion supplemental budget, which includes the P500 million evacuation fund, asked by Malacañang.

Five administration congressmen, however, urged the Senate to hold in abeyance its probe into the allegedly missing and diverted OWWA funds until after all Filipinos are repatriated from Lebanon.

"I think the timing is wrong. We should focus more on the safety and welfare of our people," House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles said.

Reps. Exequiel Javier of Antique, Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado of Bulacan, Joel Mayo Almario of Davao Oriental and Mauricio Domogan of Baguio City agreed with Nograles. — With Aurea Calica, Katherine Adraneda, Pia Lee-Brago, Sandy Araneta, Marvin Sy and Delon Porcalla

CONEJOS EMPLOYERS ESCAPE FILIPINAS FILIPINOS GOVERNMENT LATIP LEBANON MRS. ARROYO PHILIPPINE
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