Families of distressed and stranded OFWS troop to the DFA to demand urgent repatriation, welfare and legal assistance during day of Senate Budget Hearing of DFA

On September 16th, 25 family members of stranded and distressed OFWs, along with migrant, seafarers and peasant women rights organizations and advocates from Migrante International, SEANetwork, Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines, AMIHAN and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines trooped to the Department of Foreign Affairs before the Agency’s scheduled budget hearing before the Senate to demand for urgent assistance from the Philippine Government.

Holding pictures of their loved ones, the family members of more than 30 seafarers who worked in fishing vessels Han Rong (362, 366, 369) and Lu Quing Yuan Yu and currently stranded at sea for more than two months now, appealed to the Department of Foreign Affairs for immediate medical attention, provision of food supplies, clean water and medicine, and immediate repatriation assistance. Some of the seafarers have been onboard for more than 22 months and their contracts have already expired. Many of the seafarers have already suffered from illness without access to medical attention.

Family members of the stranded seafarers provided testimonies of their loved ones’ critical conditions while stranded onboard and expressed concerns for their safety and well-being. They also voiced out their dismay in the slow repatriation process and the lack of a definite plan and schedule when they will be able to return home.

Family members of jailed and in distress OFWs Mr. Archie Garcia and Mr. Ron James Ratin, also appealed to the DFA for urgent legal assistance and protection. Both of the OFWs were arrested in the month of August allegedly for drug-related cases and are currently detained in Al Riyadh Al Kharj prison and Swaide prison respectively, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both families of Mr. Garcia, a housekeeper and Mr. Ratin, a maintenance worker, claims they were never informed directly by any DFA or Embassy officials or received any form of communication about their loved ones’ arrest, detention and nature of their charges.

Despite attempts to communicate with DFA officials both in Manila and overseas through email and phone, the families have still not received any clear updates on the status of their loved ones.

According to Kristine, Mr. Garcia’s sister, “On Aug. 26 at dawn around 2 am here in the Philippines, I sent an email to the Embassy Riyadh to ask for an Assistance To Nationals for my brother. Since then, I never got any response or update from the Riyadh Embassy. I only received an automated email informing their contact numbers. I called their hotline but they didn’t answer, sometimes cancelling my calls, and they kept me waiting for 15 mins. with an answer machine or operator. I called them many times. I also called Polo Riyadh Al Khobar hotline number, and someone answered immediately. She asked about my concern and when they heard that it was a drug case, the call stopped. As per our friend, the embassy will not help for drug cases because they said they will only help the convict only after he is sentenced. We just have to wait for the punishment as he said, and that is the only time they will move.”

“Does the DFA really have the interest of protecting the rights and welfare of our distressed kababayans overseas? Based on the testimonies of our OFW families today, I would say no. There are many jailed OFWs who are charged with crimes they have not committed, are victims of different forms of exploitation but by waiting after a sentence is handed down before taking action, the DFA does not give them the opportunity to effectively defend themselves in court hearings. Our hard-working economic heroes deserve protection, but why is their own government quick to give up on them and even treats them like criminals without rights? Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion declares.

Also, Chairperson Concepcion adds that “the extremely slow repatriation process and immediate provision of welfare protection and services for stranded and distressed overseas Filipinos in times of crisis has been a chronic problem facing the DFA even before the pandemic. The DFA cannot use the pandemic as an excuse for their inaction. The truth is they want to pass on what is supposed to be their responsibility to employers, companies, agencies so they can spend as little of their funds allotted for the protection of overseas Filipinos as possible.”

On August 31, DFA Secretary Locsin reported in a House Budget Hearing for the Agency, its Assistance to Nationals Program received an additional Php 820 M under the Bayanihan 2 COVID response funds but Php 350 M remain underutilized by the agency.

“It’s outrageous! Thousands of stranded and distressed overseas Filipinos affected by the pandemic overseas are hungry, sick, no shelter while they are stranded overseas. These funds could have been used to rescue them, facilitate their immediate repatriation and provide them with welfare assistance!” Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion states.

The DFA Budget allotted for their Assistance to Nationals Program and the Legal Assistance Fund remain the same amount of Php 1.2 Billion for the year 2022. Not a single increase, despite more than 5,000 overseas Filipinos in jail, thousands of undocumented Filipinos who need to pay for their immigration penalties incurred because of the PH government’s slow repatriation program, and increasing number of distressed overseas Filipinos who continue to be impacted by the economic and health crisis resulting from the Pandemic.

“Not increasing the budget for these two programs only mean one thing: it is not in the priority of the Duterte government to increase resources that would provide much needed aid and support to our kababayans who are escaping abuse, victims of exploitation, human trafficking, and unjust treatment overseas. The government neglect is glaring.” Chairperson Concepcion states. 

After conducting the short picket action, a representative of the DFA, Mr. dela Fuente of the Administration Department spoke with Migrante International Chairperson to inform her that Mr. Jose Cabrera, Senior Special Assistant of the OUMWA-DFA is open to an online dialogue with the families of the distressed and stranded OFWs on Monday, September 20 at 10:00 am.