By Jerome Aning
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Tuesday urged some 17,000 Filipinos, mostly women working as domestic helpers, to leave Syria due to rising cases of violence, saying it would cover the costs of their evacuation.
In a statement, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he had ordered the Philippine Embassy in Damascus to “intensify efforts to reach out to Filipinos and convince them that now is the time to consider leaving Syria.”
President Aquino told Palace reporters that Del Rosario was looking “very intensely” at developments in Syria and that a “quick response team” was in the area attempting to get vehicles to move Filipinos out of the troubled zones.
Mr. Aquino said that because most of the Filipinos in Syria were domestic helpers, “the assumption is that they don’t possess the ability as readily as professionals to take care of themselves.”
In February, the Philippines evacuated workers in Libya, but less than half of an estimated 26,000 returned. Many chose to remain in the north African country engulfed in violence, saying they had no jobs to look forward to in their homeland.
Hundreds of Filipinos were similarly affected by recent disturbances in Yemen and scores were extricated from tsunami-hit areas in Japan in March.
In Syria on Tuesday, tanks opened fire on poor Sunni districts in Latakia on the fourth day of a military assault on the northern port city aimed at crushing protests against President Bashar al-Assad that has left at least 34 civilians dead, news agencies reported.
Major news agencies are reporting events in Syria from either Amman in Jordan or Beirut in Lebanon, underscoring the dangers of on-the-spot coverage for their reporters.
“In view of the escalating violence in Syria, the DFA will be raising Alert Level 3 for the entire country of Syria effective today. Under Alert Level 3 (voluntary repatriation), all Filipinos working and residing in Syria are enjoined to leave Syria and the Philippine government will provide for the repatriation cost,” Del Rosario said.
The crisis category is a notch lower than Alert Level 4, which requires forced or mandatory evacuation of all Filipinos from the affected country.
Of the 17,000 Filipinos in Syria, more than 15,000 are women, according to the DFA. Although the Commission on Filipinos Overseas claimed that about 3,000 were “irregular” or undocumented aliens in Syria, labor officials said that up to 90 percent of Filipinos there were illegal workers.
Migrante International, a nongovernment group promoting the interests of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), warned of “another Libya” and called on the DFA and its embassy in Syria to give “concrete and solid directives” to Filipinos on how to leave the strife-torn country.
“It is is not enough for the DFA to just raise the alert level and give a blanket directive for ‘voluntary repatriation.’ What should our OFWs do? Who should they call? Where should they go? It’s the same for their families here, who could they go to for assistance or assurance that their relatives are safe? It’s beginning to look like Libya once again,” Migrante chair Garry Martinez said in a statement.
The Philippine Embassy and consulate are located in the Syrian capital, Damascus, which he said is hundreds of kilometers away from Latakia, Homs and Daraa that are worst affected by the uprising.
“The government is supposed to take care of those who want to leave but what are the officials of the consulate and embassy doing? Will they just wait for our countrymen to arrive when they are already caught in the middle of this unrest?” Martinez said.
The Migrante chair said that there should also be clear directives for undocumented OFWs in that country. Of the 17,000 OFWs in Syria, “only hundreds” are registered with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Martinez added.
Carlos Cao, head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, announced that following the DFA’s alert directive, the agency had banned the deployment of workers to Syria.
“We were hoping that the situation would subside but apparently that has not happened,” Cao said.
Although the unrest has been going on in Syria for months, no OFW has come forward to ask for repatriation, said DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez. “No one wants to be repatriated back to the Philippines. Maybe, they still feel safe there.”
An unidentified Filipino interviewed on GMA News TV last night said she had called the Philippine Embassy for assistance but was told that aid for trapped Filipinos was still being organized following the DFA call for voluntary repatriation.
The woman told GMA News TV that many Filipinos were being prevented by their employers from leaving. With reports from Philip C. Tubeza and Christine O. Avendaño
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