by JESSE EDEP, GMA News
Civilian unrest in the strife-torn regions affected nearly one million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), whose welfare remains a top priority for the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, who marks his first year in office on Thursday.
The welfare of nearly eight million OFWs in around 200 countries worldwide remains a top priority of the Philippine government, Aquino said in May.
The Philippine government will keep on “securing the welfare of overseas Filipino workers,” the President said at the time.
This piece takes a look at what the Aquino administration has accomplished for countries in crisis during the President’s first year in office.
Overseas Preparedness Response Team
Since the January revolt in Tunisia, some portions of the Middle East and North Africa have been swept up in protest against long-time rulers.
In many cases, these demonstrations and movements have been met with brute force and escalated into seemingly unending violence.
As a result, Malacañang has formed a team to bolster government’s assistance to OFWs caught in conflicts or disasters in their host countries.
Through Executive Order 34, Overseas Preparedness and Response Team (OPRT) was created under the Office of the President to “ensure the safety and security” of Filipinos abroad, the Palace said.
The OPRT, which replaced the Presidential Middle East Preparedness Committee created last 2002, is tasked to formulate strategies, programs, and policies to appropriately respond to crisis situations affecting Filipinos abroad.
In an e-mail to GMA News Online on Wednesday night, the Office of Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa noted that the OPRT members are “on alert and [are on] standby status ready for deployment in case of emergency.”
They have already “familiarized themselves with actual conditions on the ground,” the e-mail said.
Use of emergency fund
After Tunisia’s long-ruling dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was brought down from power in January 2011, bitter power struggles rippled in many of its neighboring nations such as Egypt.
In Egypt, massive protest in January this year had led to an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency.
At the height of demonstrations there, the Philippine president had ordered the Presidential Management Staff and the departments of National Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Labor and Employment to draw up possible measures to protect some 6,500 Filipinos there.
For one, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had allocated a P25-million standby emergency fund for OFWs in Egypt if the protest actions in the country worsened.
In February 2011, some OFWs availed of the voluntary repatriation program of the DFA and the Philippine Embassy in Cairo as protests demanding the resignation of Mubarak intensified.
The DFA-Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs also set up a 24-hour hotline number for relatives of Filipinos in Egypt.
In Libya, where 26,000 Filipinos are reportedly deployed, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had personally taken charge of the relocation and repatriation of OFWs there after violent protests between anti-government protesters and supporters of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The DFA had eventually set up a 24-hour Libreng Tawag service for the families of OFWs in Libya in cooperation with one of the mobile service providers in the country
Last March 7, the OFW evacuation in Libya had been accomplished, the DFA said, adding that it was able to repatriate Filipinos from Tripoli, Benghazi, and other areas in Libya affected by protests.
At a press briefing in Malacañang last March 18, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said around 90 percent of the 26,000 Filipinos in Libya were already repatriated. Most of those who chose to stay were those working in hospitals.
The Aquino administration had given out P10,000 financial assistance to overseas Filipino workers who returned from Libya.
Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) records showed that as of 2009, Libya is the sixth top destination for Filipino nurses and third top destinations for Filipino teachers.
Also, Del Rosario went to Yemen last March to assess the situation there as Yemeni loyalist forces have waged a gun battle with opponents of entrenched President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has clung to power despite heavy diplomatic and popular pressure to end his nearly 33-year rule.
The DFA raised in May the crisis alert level in Yemen to “3″ due to the continuous political tension and violence in Sana’a, the capital city. Earlier in June, the DFA once again raised the crisis alert level there to “4.”
Voluntary repatriation at Philippine government’s expense was offered to Filipinos who wish to leave Yemen.
As of June 21, at least 178 Filipinos have availed of the voluntary repatriation program since it started on May 30. There are 1,422 Filipinos in Yemen registered in the embassy there.
The DFA also raised the crisis alert level in Syria to “2,” following the continued political tension in the country brought about by demonstrations against the administration of President Bashar al-Assad.
According to DFA estimates, there are 17,000 Filipinos living in Syria.
In Bahrain, where over 15,000 Filipinos are deployed there, civilian unrest was prodded by protest led mainly by Shi’ite demonstrators against the Sunni ruling class.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz had ordered the POEA to stop the deployment of newly hired workers to Bahrain as the DFA issued a warning to defer non-essential travel there.
Eventually, the DFA lowered the crisis alert level in Bahrain from “2″ to “1″ in view of the lifting of the state of emergency in the country on May 31.
After all the government’s efforts to put premium to the lives of the country’s “new heroes,” the Aquino administration received a 65-percent mark, 10 percentage points below the passing grade, for its performance in its first year, according to Migrante International.
Migrante said Aquino failed to deliver what he had promised during presidential campaigns and policy pronouncements during his inaugural and public speeches.
The President, in his inaugural address on June 30 last year, gave marching orders to all concerned government agencies to attend to various OFWs issues and concerns.
Such orders may have fallen on deaf ears as there were no more orders and actions to improve the plight of OFWs and their dependents, the group said, pointing out that the government was particularly indecisive in repatriating and providing assistance to OFWs in war-torn countries.
“No serious protection for OFWs especially in the Middle East,” it said. “Many still have been abused, mistreated, jailed, tortured, raped, murdered, and other with trumped-up charges, with no due process, much less indemnification from those who have done them wrong.” — GMA News