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Duterte wants special session on Middle East conflict
Duterte said bureaucratic processes should not prevent the immediate release of assistance to affected migrant workers.
Simeon Celi Jr./Presidential Photo, File

Duterte wants special session on Middle East conflict

Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - January 7, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — As tensions rise between the United States and Iran, President Duterte yesterday urged Congress to hold a special session to discuss the situation in the Middle East and ordered agencies to come up with a standby fund for the possible repatriation of Filipino workers.

Congress is on a break and will resume session on Jan. 20.

“I was tinkering with the idea of calling a special session of Congress. (Finance Secretary Carlos) Sonny Dominguez says we have unlimited funds for that... he says we have the money,” Duterte said, referring to the special fund. “If it spells the difference between the life and death of Filipinos, Sonny Dominguez says we have the money. We will buy, borrow, steal. We will steal from the Central Bank. If we have to do it, we will do it.”

Duterte said bureaucratic processes should not prevent the immediate release of assistance to affected migrant workers.

He admitted that he is worried about the possible escalation of tensions in the Middle East, which hosts about 1.2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). 

Duterte was referring to Iran’s threat to avenge the death of Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force who was killed in a US drone strike last week in Baghdad, Iraq.

US President Donald Trump has said he had ordered the air strike to “stop a war,” claiming that Soleimani was planning a “very major attack.” The slain general was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” according to the Pentagon.

“There is an evolving crisis somewhere. We do not know what would be the end result of this crisis. It could lead to a protracted war. It could be a wide-scale strife. But whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in great peril,” the President said after the ceremonial signing of the 2020 budget at Malacañang.

“We have so many millions, nearing three I think, of Filipinos working mainly in the Middle East. Kinakabahan ako (I am nervous). Iran seems to be hell-bent on a retaliation, which I think will come. It’s a matter of time. There is much hurt and even the loss of pride of the Arabic world. And retaliation or the cry for blood is there,” he added.

Duterte said a standby fund worth “billions” should be put up so the government could send the Middle East-based OFWs back home before the situation in the region worsens.

“If Iran is poised to strike, it will not strike Iraq because as it is Iraq is already in a sorry state. Maybe Iran rather would go for a more bloody nose. The problem is there (are) two countries that are really... the apple of the eye of the Iranians – it’s Israel and Saudi Arabia. If that happens, then we have trouble because most of our OFW are stationed – majority of them are in Saudi Arabia,” the President said.

“I am not as bright as the others. Those with strategic minds might want to do it for us. Let’s start with a standby fund... We need billions there... And calculate what would be the calibrated withdrawals... in places where it is really very dangerous,” he added. Duterte said a committee would handle the standby fund.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the government has ordered the military to prepare its assets for the possible evacuation of Filipinos in the Middle East.

He said a forced evacuation may be implemented if security agencies think the situation in the region places the lives of Filipinos at risk. 

Repatriation

Most OFWs are reluctant to leave their jobs in the Middle East even as President Duterte already ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to prepare for possible evacuation of all Filipinos from the region amid brewing hostilities between the US and Iran.

Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) reported that Filipinos in the Middle East have expressed their desire to just be relocated to safer ground rather than be repatriated back home in case war erupts.

Based on government data, about 1.2 million documented Filipinos are working in different countries in the Middle East and likely to be affected by the growing tension between the US and Iran.

“In a teleconference call meeting with OFW groups stationed in Jordan and Qatar, most of them prefer to relocate to another country in the region than be repatriated the moment the situation there became worse,” TUCP spokesman Alan Tanjusay said.

Tanjusay said OFWs fear that they would end up jobless if they were repatriated.

“Job opportunities here are few and though jobs may be available, yet their skills acquired while working abroad don’t match with those here,” Tanjusay noted.

Tanjusay further said that prevailing salaries and work-related benefits in the Middle East are higher than wage rates in the Philippines.

According to TUCP, the government needs to prepare an attractive reintegration program to convince Filipino workers to leave their jobs in the Middle East.

“There must be no discrimination of government evacuation and contingency measures. Government evacuation intervention should be extended to all OFWs whether they are documented or undocumented, registered or unregistered,” Tanjusay added.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has formed a special task force to evacuate Filipinos from the Middle East region.

Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) chief Bernard Olalia said Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III yesterday convened the Special Task Force for the Middle East.

Olalia said the POEA is set to submit to the Office of the President deployment data to determine the number and location of the workers likely to be evacuated in case the situation in the Middle East worsens.

According to Olalia, the different Philippine Overseas Labor Offices in the region have put in place a system in preparation for the possible evacuation of Filipinos.

He said the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration could pay for the repatriation cost of bonafide members while the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) could use its funds to repatriate undocumented OFWs.

Local terrorists

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have intensified intelligence gathering efforts in the Middle East in anticipation of possible sympathy attacks by local terrorists who support Iran.

AFP chief Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. said this was among the matters discussed when President Duterte called for an emergency meeting in Malacañang over the weekend.

Duterte met with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the AFP chief, the PNP chief, commanders of the Philippine Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as other security officials at Malacañang on Sunday.

President Duterte remains hopeful that tensions in the Middle East will not escalate even as he ordered all agencies to prepare contingency plans in the event a full-blown armed conflict erupts in the region, Sen. Christopher Go said yesterday.

Go was present at the meeting presided over by Duterte to assess the impact of the increasing tensions in the Middle East on the country, especially on affected Filipinos in the region.

“The President considers the situation with utmost concern and hopes that things will stabilize, with the support of all regional and global stakeholders,” the senator said.

“The President has directed relevant agencies to prepare for any eventuality and possible impact on the country. As your senator, I will support all efforts of (Duterte) to safeguard and protect our national interests in the Middle East,” he said.

The emergency meeting was held following the death of Iran’s top general Ossem  Soleimani, who was killed after the US carried out a drone strike in Iraq on Friday.

Santos said Duterte called them to discuss what impact the situation would have on the Philippines and one concern is to monitor and intensify intelligence monitoring on local terrorist groups that might express sympathy to the Iranian cause, though none are affiliated with Iran.

Duterte also directed the military to prepare naval and air assets for the possible evacuation of Filipinos from Iran and Iraq.

The Philippine embassy in Iraq asked Iraqi companies to allow Filipino workers to take their leave of absence to return to the Philippines if the situation in that country deteriorates.

The embassy wrote to the Human Resource managers of 51 companies in Iraq requesting them to provide the required documents to Filipino workers who are qualified to avail themselves of the Selective Balik Manggagawa Program for them to take their vacation in the Philippines and return to work despite the deployment ban on new workers to Iraq.

Citing the recent situation, the embassy requested the companies to provide the number of Filipinos working in their company and contingency plan for them in case of evacuation.

“If the situation deteriorates, the embassy would also like to request your company to allow them to take a leave of absence to the Philippines and return to your company as soon as the situation de-escalates,” said Chargé d’Affaires Jomar Sadie of the Philippine embassy in Baghdad in the letter.

The Bureau of Immigration (BI) at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is now monitoring OFWs bound for Iran and Iraq.

BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval said that the bureau is ready to implement any changes in policy on OFW deployment to the Middle East.

Sandoval said there are at least 3,000 Iranians, mostly students, entering the country every year.

Reports said that most of the Filipinos in Iran are permanent residents – wives and children of Iranians who studied in universities and colleges in the Philippines during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these Filipinos practice their professions as dentists, doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses and midwifes in Iran.

The DFA urged OFWs in Iraq to closely coordinate with embassy officials in Baghdad and their respective employers in case of mandatory evacuation. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Michael Punongbayan, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Rudy Santos, Emmanuel Tupas, Paolo Romero, Pia Lee-Brago, Rudy Santos, Ding Cervantes

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