Thousands of OFWs face arrest as martial law-like Saudi crackdowns resume today

Thousands of stranded overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are in danger of being violently dispersed, arrested and detained by Saudi authorities as crackdowns against undocumented migrants resume in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today (November 3, KSA time).

Some 1,700 OFWs remain stranded in Jeddah alone, while around 5,000 more are scattered in Riyadh, Al Khobar and Dammam, after the Saudi government announced an extension of the deadline for repatriation of undocumented migrants last July 3.

Meanwhile, Migrante International also echoed fears from some migrant analysts that some 100,000 are in danger of being arrested and deported when the crackdowns resume in full force today. “This figure includes not only those who are in the Tent City, shelters or presently hiding in Filipino communities. The crackdowns are now also said to target even OFWs who are working or employed but are working for employers other than those indicated in their sponsorship visas.”

 OFWs bound to their sponsors

The sponsorship system or kafala is an immigration and labor system imposed by the Saudi government on migrant workers. Under the kafala, no migrant worker is allowed to enter the country without an “in-country” sponsor, usually the employer. The sponsor is primarily responsible for the workers’ visa and legal status.

Also under the kafala, migrant workers’ residency permits are bound to their “sponsors” whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country. Employers often abuse this power to confiscate passports, withhold wages and force migrant workers into slave-like conditions. In effect, the kafala makes migrant workers more vulnerable to abuses and modern-day slavery.

“This policy is one of the main reasons why yearly we see an increasing number of stranded OFWs, OFWs in distress, jailed OFWs and OFWs on death row in Saudi. These policies have been in place for decades now yet both the Saudi and Philippine governments have done nothing to address its adverse effects. The kafala is one of the main reasons why there are now thousands of stranded OFWs in Saudi awaiting repatriation,” he said.

 Lack of funds?

“We fear the worst. We expect more wipe-out efforts and drastic measures by the Saudi government on and after the actual day of resumption of crackdowns. Should anything untoward happen to our OFWs in light of the crackdowns, we only have the Aquino government to blame. Government efforts to implement a free, urgent and mass repatriation of the remaining stranded OFWs have been dismal despite the four-month extension,” said Martinez.

Since the Tent City broke out last March, six OFWs and at least two children have died. Slow repatriation, lack of supplies and medical assistance and the absence of immediate financial assistance to returned OFWs from Saudi have been attributed to the Philippine government’s lack of funds. “Tapos malalaman nating bilyun-bilyong pondo ng mamamayan ang walang-habas na kinurakot at trilyun-trilyon pala ang pondong nasa kontrol mismo ng pangulo. OFWs and their families are outraged.”

MArtinez said that even the supposed P2-billion reintegration fund recently allotted by the Aquino government for returning OFWs comes too late in the game. “Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo?” he said.

“We have already called for the resignation and recall of negligent embassy and labor officials in Saudi. We will not hesitate to call on the resignation of Aquino himself. DAPat siyang managot sa kriminal na kapabayaan sa kapakanan ng ating mga OFW,” Martinez said.

Migrante Hotlines

Martinez also slammed the Philippines government for failing to provide even hotline numbers or urgent guidelines to stranded OFWs in the event of arrests and similar incidents.

“At this time when the government should be pro-active, it has again taken the passive stance and simply requested for an extension of the deadline. What our OFWs need now is on-call legal assistance and protection. What they need now is for the PH posts to open their doors to the stranded OFWs, to provide them sanctuary. What they need now is active intervention from the Philippines government to demand that they stop the crackdowns  in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Martinez called on OFWs and families of stranded OFWs in Saudi to get in touch with Migrante International Home Office’s hotlines, 911-4910 (telefax) and 0921-2709079 (mobile), or Migrante-KSA hotlines, 00966 55 726 7069 (Riyadh and Central Region), 00966 56 203 1626 (Jeddah and Western Region) and 00966 50 737 3906 (Al Khobar and Eastern Region). ###