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09:15 PM August 23rd, 2013

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August 23rd, 2013 09:15 PM

It’s now alert level 4 for Filipino workers in Egypt, the highest alert level in the Philippines’ four-tier overseas emergency alert system, as the situation in the Arab country continues to deteriorate. Level 4 means evacuating some 7,000 Filipinos out of the war-torn country is now mandatory, with the Philippine government providing free repatriation services.

“Secretary (Albert) del Rosario said that the marked deterioration of peace and order in Egypt, exacerbated by the ongoing political instability and grave security challenges in that country, makes working and living there increasingly difficult and dangerous,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said last Tuesday.

Many of the OFWs are nurses, domestic workers, office or hotel staff, production technicians and skilled workers. According to the DFA, some 1,200 are permanent residents and 3,000 are temporary overseas Filipino workers. The rest have irregular residency status.

All of them, if they choose to stay, risk running into the crossfire of the horrific civil unrest that has erupted between Egypt’s military and its former governing party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Reports so far have placed the casualty count at 900 people dead, following the military’s crackdown on the protest camps of supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

As Reuters has reported, “a seven-week standoff turned into a bloodbath when the security forces dispersed Morsi’s supporters’ protest camps on Aug. 14. They have since launched a campaign of arrests designed to break Morsi’s 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, seizing figures that include its ‘general guide,’ Mohamed Badie. At least 900 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in the past eight days, according to government sources. Brotherhood supporters say the real figure is far higher.”

And prospects for immediate peace are not in the horizon, as the standoff looks set to intensify some more with the Egyptian Army’s decision to release former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the hated totem of the old order, from Cairo’s Tora prison where he has languished after his fall from three decades of power over a year ago.

As the tumult spread, Filipino workers were advised in July to stay indoors and prepare for evacuation, if need be. The announcement that forced repatriation has been ordered by the Philippine government came with news that $240,000 has also been released to fly back the OFWs. Rather incredibly, as of last Wednesday according to the DFA, only five Filipinos—three from Cairo, two from Alexandria—had availed themselves of the repatriation offer and were back in Philippine soil. While fearful of the instability around them, a lot of OFWs are said to be hesitant to leave for fear of losing their jobs.

The DFA has its work cut out for it in convincing recalcitrant Filipino workers that staying on and risking their very lives in an imploding country is not worth it. The case of OFWs in Libya who tried to wait out that country’s upheaval over the removal of long-time strongman Moammar Gadhafi, only to find themselves isolated and unassisted in their escape through the desert, must serve as a cautionary tale to their fellow workers in Egypt.

The DFA must also work double time in sending back those who’ve chosen the more prudent road and have opted to go home, before the situation further deteriorates and flying out becomes even more difficult. The Aquino administration cannot dilly-dally or, worse, drop the ball in this matter. Already, some 800 OFWs are housed in welfare centers in Arab countries from Saudi Arabia to Libya, many of them having fled from abusive employers or households. The inordinately lengthy processing of their repatriation papers is a form of criminal neglect, reducing many of these workers to bide their time in stressful, miserable conditions in “shelters.”

But in the case of the OFWs in Egypt, such waiting time is not even an option. Before things get so much worse than they are now, they must be plucked out of there fast, and brought home safe and sound to their families.

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