MANILA, Philippines — At least 14 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) comprise the first batch in the country’s repatriation efforts from the Middle East crisis Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Saturday, 11 January 2020.
The 14 OFWs are now at the Philippine embassy in Baghdad, Iraq where their papers are being processed as part of the government’s ongoing mandatory repatriation operations.
Designated inter-agency repatriation committee chair for OFWs in the Middle East, Lorenzana said the group will be transported to Doha, Qatar where the workers would take a commercial flight to Manila today.
The official said he expects the number of OFWs in Iraq to increase as well as in other affected areas as the conflict and situation between Iran and United States remains volatile.
“The situation in the area in the Middle East (particularly in Iraq) is still unstable and our contingencies for massive repatriation are still in place,” said Lorenzana.
Lorenza added that Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Roy Cimatu, who is the designated Special Envoy to the Middle East, is now in Qatar implementing the government mandatory repatriation.
Cimatu is also tasked to assess the security situation in Iran, Iraq, Libya and other neighboring states.
A 2018 Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) record shows that there are about 2.3 million OFWs who are based in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.
These Middle Eastern countries are considered as prime destinations of Filipinos who seek jobs abroad with the rest scattered across the globe.
Meanwhile, President Duterte said Friday the government has enough funds to cover the repatriation of the OFWs in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.
Duterte said he had directed Lorenzana and Cimatu – both former military generals – to coordinate the efforts to ensure the safety of Filipinos in the affected areas.
The President greatly counts on the two former military officials to get the OFWs out of harm’s way even as he also ordered the defense department to use all available resources to coordinate efforts.
“I requested Secretary Lorenzana to take stock of what we have, what are the equipment that can be sent immediately, ships and airplanes and of course provisioning, the evacuees if needed to be quartered in a certain place outside harm’s way and that would be Iraq and Iran,” Duterte said.
Lorenzana said the committee is also monitoring the security situation in Kuwait where the government raised its security level to maximum on Thursday.
“The alert level within the area covering a 100-kilometer radius from and including Tripoli, Libya was raised to Level 4 (mandatory evacuation). Outside the said 100-kilometer radius, it remains at Alert Level 2,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana also added the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is ready to send in two Marine and Army battalions as well as its air and naval assets to the Middle East to assist in the repatriation of OFWs.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel BRP Gabriela Silang is on standby in Malta from France and ready to sail to the Middle East to evacuate OFWs.
Defense spokesman Arsenio Andolong said that aside from Iraq, the inter-agency committee expects more OFWs from Iran and Libya to request repatriation.
“We advise our kababayans in Iraq and in Tripoli, Libya to contact the nearest Philippine mission to facilitate their mandatory repatriation,” Andolong said.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Star also reported that “the Department of Agriculture (DA) is ready to provide loans to returning OFWs displaced by the conflict in the Middle East.
Agriculture Secretary William Dar it said returning OFWs could avail of an emergency loan to allow them and their families to engage in agriculture, fishery or any agribusiness enterprise.
“The DA through the Agricultural Credit and Policy Council (ACPC) will provide an emergency loan assistance, at zero interest, worth P25,000 to each returning OFW from Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East,” Dar said.
“They may opt to avail of a bigger amount under the recently-approved DA-ACPC Micro and Small Agribusiness Loan Program (MSALP), where they can borrow from P300,000 up to P15 million, at zero interest, payable in five years,” he added.
The MSALP is one of the two new lending programs of the DA aimed at encouraging more people to venture into the farm sector.
The program has an initial P1-billion budget with formal launching of the loan fund set before the end of the month.
Under the MSALP, agripreneurs can borrow for working capital or for fixed asset acquisition, from P300,000 up to P15 million, for micro and small enterprises.
The program will be implemented by the ACPC through the Land Bank of the Philippines, ACPC-accredited cooperative banks, rural banks, cooperatives and viable non-government organizations.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said yesterday that with tensions between the US and Iran apparently deescalating and Congress resuming session next week, there may be no longer any need for lawmakers to convene a special session to tackle a new budget to fund any government contingency for the Middle East.
Sotto said there is still no formal request from Malacañang for Congress to hold a special session – as President Duterte stated last week – to authorize a new budget to finance the cost of repatriating Filipinos from the Middle East.
“I think they (Malacañang) already found enough funds for the purpose,” Sotto told radio dwIZ. “Even if they will call for a special session, the proceedings will take time and by the time the funds are to be approved, Congress will already be in session.”
He said the President’s Social Fund as well as other discretionary and contingent funds in other agencies would total at least around P5 billion.
Sen. Joel Villanueva said the government’s emergency repatriation fund lodged in the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) amounting to P65 million should be tapped to finance the mandatory evacuation of Filipino workers and migrants in the Middle East.
Villanueva, chairman of the Senate committee on labor and employment, earlier said the fund, which was included in the 2020 General Appropriations Act that President Duterte signed earlier this week, would be enough to jumpstart the government’s order to Filipino workers to leave Iraq.
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian meanwhile urged the government and oil companies to study the possibility of permanently increasing the country’s fuel stockpiles beyond the 45-day reserve to help meet fuel needs in the event of full-blown conflict in the Middle East.
Gatchalian also reiterated his call for the Department of Trade and Industry to monitor businesses that may take advantage of tensions in the Middle East to increase prices. (JGo/Currentph.com)