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Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President

Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

A team headed by a cabinet secretary has been dispatched to undertake the mandatory evacuation of Filipinos in Iraq after government raised Alert Level 4 last week. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Alert Level 4 is the highest crisis alert level and is raised in the event of a a major internal conflict or external attack on the host country. The decision was prompted by the firing of missiles from Iran targetting a US military base in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian military official by the US government.

The team is eyeing the evacuation by land or air of an estimated 4,000 Filipinos in Iraq, both documented and undocumented. From news reports, we learned that the OFWs will be transited to Jordan or Qatar before being flown back to Manila.

At the same time, the labor secretary announced that his department will be deploying rapid response teams to Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE) to oversee the possible evacuation of an estimated four million Filipinos in the Middle East. This followed a presidential directive for government to prepare a contingency plan should there be a need to bring home Filipinos working in the Middle East in case tensions in the region escalate further.

When I was vice president and presidential adviser for OFW concerns, the government repatriated Filipinos workers from war-torn Libya and Syria. Government had the funds and an evacuation plan, but we were faced with two obstacles: about half of Filipinos working in these countries were undocumented. In Syria, these undocumented workers — hired as domestic helpers — were able to enter the country despite a deployment ban. The second was the reluctance of many Filipinos to leave, fearing loss of income. They were willing to risk their lives rather than face the prospect of unemployment back home.

This attitude among our OFWs needs to be reshaped if we intend to pull off future evacuations with relative ease. We need to assure them that good-paying jobs await them when they return. For me, that is the bigger challenge for government.

Tension in the Middle East has been high in recent years, exposing our OFWs to the risk of actual danger to their lives and safety. It also serves to remind us how vulnerable our OFWs are, and by extension, how fragile and unreliable it is to continue with an economic policy anchored on the erratic fortunes of overseas remittances.

While the United States remained the biggest source of cash remittances as of October last year, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and several European and Asian destinations accounted for 78.4 percent of the $2.671 billion

remittances for the same period. But a bank analyst had noted that remittances from Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE took a tumble in October. Together, remittances from these countries account for 24 per cent of total OFW remittances.

Let’s create a hypothetical scenario where we are forced to bring home all our OFWs in the Middle East. By government estimates, there are over two million registered OFWs in the region. But the number doubles to four million if we include Filipinos working illegally.

Each post is mandated to have contingency plans and protocols in place, including evacuation routes, logistics, linkages, and coordination with the OFW communities, and funding. A foreign affairs official once explained that the DFA has a framework for undertaking repatriations known as the Three Ps — Preparedness, Partnerships, and Political will.

With government certain it can fund the mass repatriation of four million Filipinos from the Middle East, we can safely assume that even with some hitches, such a major undertaking can be done. Difficult, but doable.

But there is a bigger concern: how to provide jobs to four million Filipinos once they return home. So far, our policy makers have been silent on the matter. It is the elephant in the room. But it is a scenario that must be planned for, if only to take stock of our long-term economic prospects. The impact on our economy would be tremendous. It will test the limits of the government’s capability to respond to their needs, particularly food, shelter, and economic assistance for an undetermined period. It will demand competence, flexibility, and swift action on the part of government. Compared to these, bringing our OFWs home would be the easy part.

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