Global alliance of overseas Filipinos and families Migrante International today reiterated calls on the Philippine government to step up repatriation efforts in strife-torn Syria in light of escalating violence and impending US-NATO air strikes on the country. Migrante International called on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to “increase its efforts tenfold” as only 6 percent of the total 17,000 Filipino population in Syria has been repatriated and brought out of harm’s way.
The death toll in Syria has reached 5,500, with some members of the international media as casualties.
Earlier, Migrante International chairperson Garry Martinez blamed the “slow, sporadic and unsystematic repatriation efforts” by the DFA on five main reasons, namely:
- The Philippine government’s helplessness and futility in imposing an Alert Level 4 in the absence of more active cooperation and coordination with the Syrian government and Ministry of Labor with regard the repatriation of OFWs. Because the Syrian government “does not recognize that it is in war”, the Philippine government has resorted to negotiating directly with Syrian employers who in turn are demanding thousands of dollars in deployment costs in exchange for the repatriation of Filipino domestic workers.
“This has proven to be a painstakingly slow process, the haggling and bargaining with individual employers, because the PH government failed to invoke and assert its own policies and existing and governing international laws concerning the immediate repatriation of migrant workers in times of conflict, imminent threat or violence,” Martinez said.
He cited the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families , Article 16, No. 2 stating that “Migrant workers and members of their families shall be entitled to effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or private individuals, groups or institutions.” Both Syria and the Philippines are parties to the ratification of the Convention.
- The Philippine government has mis-prioritized allocation of funds. Instead of hiring local lawyers to negotiate with Syrian employers, it opted to transport additional personnel to man its embassy and POLO-OWWA posts – a more expensive move, if not another exercise in futility.
“No matter how many personnel our government deploys, their mobility and effectiveness are limited because they could not enter conflict-ridden areas that have been closed off even to diplomats and officials,” said Martinez.
Worse, he added, OFWs who are in need of rescue are being required instead to “escape from their employers, take a cab to the embassy, and the embassy will reimburse their cab fares.” “That is the most reckless and foolish advice the PH embassy could give to our OFWs.”
- There appears to be a lack of coordination between concerned agencies in charge of repatriation, namely the DFA and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
- The standard computation for deployment costs set by the DFA and OWWA vary. This raises the alarm for possible corruption or abuse by some government officials.
“In separate dialogues, the OWWA said that it had set the average deployment cost at $2,500 per OFW while the DFA pegged it at $3,000 to $4,000. Ang laki ng difference. We are very bothered by this because we have also received complaints from returned OFWs who suspect that their deployment costs were being ‘pocketed’ by some abusive and corrupt government officials. The Philippine government should be more transparent on this matter,” Martinez said.
The migrant leader also said that even the figures given by the DFA and OWWA of the total population of OFWs in Syria are conflicting. “How can they coordinate and implement repatriation efficiently when they do not even have their basic facts straight?”
Latest reports from the DFA peg the total Filipino population at only 5,000 while the OWWA claims that there are at least 6,000 Filipinos in Syria, regular and irregular. The Syrian government data, however, estimates at least 10,000 Filipinos while the International Organization for Migration (IOM) places the number of Filipinos to at least 12,000. The DFA, however, in its earlier reports, said that there are 17,000 Filipinos in Syria, 98 percent of them irregular or undocumented.
- There is a general “blackout of information” on the real situation of Filipinos in Syria. The Philippine government has announced that the conflict is only concentrated on four towns – Homs, Hama, Idlib and Daraa – where repatriation efforts are solely in place.
“Ang sinasabi nila ay payapa at hindi naman magulo sa ibang mga lugar. However, we have received reports that conflict and violence have reached even Damascus and other parts of the country,” Martinez said.
Martinez also questioned why mobile phones of OFWs are being confiscated inside Filipino Workers Resource Centers (FWRCs). “When we asked the DFA they said that it is mainly a POLO-OWWA policy. Yet we fail to see the rationale of confiscating mobile phones and shutting off our OFWs from their families and the rest of the world. How else could we know what their real situation is in Syria?”
He said the confiscation of mobile phones in FWRCs is a direct violation of the fourth Geneva Convention, “Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”, which states that individuals “who do not belong to the armed forces or take no part in the hostilities” should be protected and “enabled to exchange family news of a personal kind” and/or “helped to secure news of family members dispersed by the conflict”.
Lastly, the Philippine government’s refusal to take a position condemning the impending US-NATO military intervention in Syria continues to endanger the lives of tens of thousands of Filipinos in the country, Martinez said.
Migrante International called on its chapters around the world to condemn and oppose US-NATO’s plans to strike Syria for territorial and economic motives at the expense of Syrian nationals and migrant population.###