In a statement, the Department of Labor and Employment said mandatory repatriation will only apply to Filipinos in Iraq and not to those in other countries in the Middle East.
The STAR/Rudy Santos, File
Mandatory repatriation remains only in Iraq
Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) - January 10, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Only Filipinos in Iraq will be covered by the mandatory repatriation ordered by the Philippine government, as hostilities between the United States and Iran appeared to taper off.

Malacañang welcomed the “good news” that US President Donald Trump was not pursuing further military action against Iran as the latter appeared to be standing down after its missile attacks on two military facilities in Iraq housing American troops and personnel.

The attacks were in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s top military commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq.

“Good news! Good news for all of us. If the conflict has de-escalated instead of escalating, then that’s good news for everyone especially for our overseas workers,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said yesterday. “But nevertheless, the move to evacuate and repatriate is still going on.”

Special envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III are in charge of the government’s evacuation and repatriation efforts.

In a statement, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) said mandatory repatriation will only apply to Filipinos in Iraq and not to those in other countries in the Middle East.

In a statement, DOLE said Filipino workers in Iran and Lebanon will no longer be forcibly repatriated.

Bello said alert levels in Iran and Lebanon have been downgraded.

“Initially, the level of alert for Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are the same—[Alert Level] 4. Although it was unofficial, I was informed yesterday that the alert level in Lebanon was put down to level 2 and I understand that there’s no more alert level in Iran,” Bello said in a statement.

He stressed, however, that deployment of Filipino workers to Iran and Lebanon is still prohibited.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Bello said, will not process any application for jobs in the two countries.

For Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, the raging tension between the US and Iran should not justify the evacuation of all Filipinos from the Middle East.

“Unless it’s a nuclear war – God forbid and no one wants that – our fellow Filipinos will have nowhere to hide there (in the Middle East). But if it’s not a nuclear war, there are areas in the Middle East where we can move and keep our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) for safety,” he said in an ambush interview. He also cited the “logistical nightmare of bringing all of them home.”

He said Philippine ambassadors in countries involved in conflict situations should be made to submit their respective contingency plans to the Palace.

Cayetano said the government may also consider sending unarmed military personnel to its embassies in the Middle East.

“Time and time again, it has been proven that when there’s military, evacuation is more organized... It is very hard for embassies and embassy officials to secure the OFWs if the embassy, embassy vehicles and embassy official business is not secured,” he said, citing the country’s experience in Libya as an example.

P20 billion  standby fund

The Speaker revealed the government would need some P20 billion in standby contingency funds to bankroll possible repatriation of OFWs in the Middle East if trouble in the region escalates.

Duterte has called for a special session of Congress ahead of the resumption of session on Jan. 20 so it could map out contingency plans as well as allocate funds necessary.

He said the President has made the right move when he insisted on having contingency measures in place despite the supposed easing of tensions in the Middle East.

“The President is correct. You cannot take the words at face value when it comes to unspoken war like this. These parties are planning retaliation and retaliation to retaliation, and the problem is there are so many Filipinos there in the Middle East,” Cayetano added. 

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana presided over a meeting of an interagency committee created to oversee the repatriation of OFWs.

“The prime consideration of the plan is the safety and welfare of Filipinos in Iran, Iraq and other neighboring countries who may be affected by the current situation in the Middle East,” defense spokesman director Arsenio Andolong said.

“The committee will be constantly monitoring the situation between the United States and Iran, and further updates will be provided as soon as they become available,” Andolong said.

Before departing for Baghdad via Qatar on a Philippine Airlines flight, Cimatu told reporters they should not let their guard down despite what seemed to be the easing of tensions between Iran and the US.

“I was told there are some airlines still operating and roads are still open so we will take the opportunity to move out our people in Iraq.”

Cimatu said the worst-case scenario that should be considered in repatriation efforts would be attacks on US bases in and around Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

He said every nation in the Middle East has its missile system, hence missile attacks are always a scenario.

“They have the option to press the trigger. We have to be ready in case there will be some incidents along the way,” he said.

He also disclosed receiving information that “about 1,600 Filipinos” have manifested their desire to be repatriated.

“We are going to talk to the undocumented OFWs’ families here in the country, help them ask to move out and go directly to the Philippine embassy for possible  repatriation,” he said.

While 2016 data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration showed 679 OFWs in Iran and Iraq, labor group Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino said there could be “thousands more” undocumented Filipinos in the region.

According to the DFA website, Alert Level 4, which calls for evacuation or mandatory repatriation, is issued “when there is large-scale internal conflict or full-blown external attack.”

Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Jaime Morente said he has ordered all BI personnel at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and other international ports to be ready for any eventuality should the conflict escalate further.

“I have directed our port operations division to see to it that adequate manpower is available to address a possible upsurge in the number of passengers arriving from the Middle East,” Morente said.

Meanwhile, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle yesterday appealed for prayers for peace amid the outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

“In this gathering so full of prayer and thanksgiving, let’s bear in mind that in another part of the world, there is looming danger, violence, that we hope won’t end in war. Let’s pray for the safety of those in the Middle East – for the feelings of hate, vengeance to disappear. And let us pray for our fellow Filipinos and their families here who are greatly worried,” Tagle said during mass at the Quirino Grandstand before the start of the Traslacion. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Rudy Santos, Robertzon Ramirez, Mayen Jaymalin,  Edu Punay, Jaime Laude

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