Road out of Damascus
The killing of Filipina domestic helper Meran Prieia Montezor in Homs, Western Syria has increased the pressure on Philippine authorities to evacuate Filipinos as Syria plunges further into chaos and disintegration. The Department of Foreign Affairs has just confirmed that Montezor, 23, of Camarines Sur, was killed in an ambush by “armed gangs” on Feb. 24 in Homs while riding in a vehicle with her employer’s family. Two days earlier, on Feb. 22, another Filipina died of renal failure while waiting for her flight back to the Philippines. The fact that it took some time for the DFA and Philippine labor welfare officers in the Middle East to confirm the Homs incident that took place a month ago should underscore the difficulty of coordinating official Philippine response to the emergency in Syria, where there are some 10,000 documented Filipino workers. The death of Montezor in particular underscores the urgency for Philippine officials to fast-track contingencies in order to evacuate Filipinos amid the fast-developing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
As of early this month, some 1,000 Filipinos have applied in the repatriation program being overseen by the Philippine Embassy in Damascus; this number is a very dramatic increase from the 100 who applied in February. The initial low number indicates the early reluctance of Filipinos to leave strife-wracked Syria. It may also indicate that even if Filipinos want to leave Syria, repatriation is no mean feat, for it would require, as Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said, “negotiating with employers for their release, including buying out their contracts, dealing with immigration officials and paying their fines, and in some cases being met with the challenges of having to extract them from areas considered to be ‘no man’s land.’”
To be sure, DFA and labor welfare officials must explain how coordinated and effective their contingency plan is. The death of the Filipina waiting for repatriation as a result of renal failure appears to show that Philippine officials in Syria may be remiss in extending the proper medical assistance to workers who may be suffering from ailments and the stress of evacuation. At the very least, the victim should have been properly endorsed as a special health and humanitarian case to the Syrian immigration office.
Ironically, Philippine diplomatic response to the humanitarian crisis has been hamstrung exactly because it’s avoiding further aggravating the situation of Filipinos in Syria. Fearing reprisals against Filipino workers, the Philippine government abstained from voting on a United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council resolution deploring the “brutal actions of the Syrian regime” and reiterating the need to urgently address humanitarian needs. The UN resolution urged the Syrian government to allow free and unimpeded access by the UN and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs in the city of Homs (which has been under severe attack for over a month) and other areas, and to permit humanitarian agencies to deliver vital relief goods and services to all civilians affected by the violence. Last month, the Philippines also did not participate in a UN General Assembly vote seeking endorsement of an Arab League proposal for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, apparently for the same reason. “Our primary concern right now is the welfare of our people,” DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said.
Philippine abstention in the UN human rights body is particularly embarrassing. The UN body approved the resolution proposed by Turkey with 37 votes in favor and three—Russia, China and Cuba—voting against. The Philippine abstention is tantamount to joining the three countries, which are not exactly human rights-friendly, and supporting Syrian President Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters, which has already killed 7,500 people. Hernandez did not mince words in indicating that the Philippines could not afford to alienate Assad: “We are repatriating our people and we have asked the Syrian government to help. We are working together to accomplish this.”
In the final analysis, the crisis in Syria should compel a rethinking of the Philippine manpower export program. Although the Philippines may bask at the seeming strong financial position it has lately been enjoying because of the billions of dollars remitted by its workers from abroad, crises like Syria’s should drive home the point that our workers face a host of vulnerabilities that may cancel out the economic benefits derived from working overseas. At the least, with the continuing Arab Spring, the Philippines should have developed by now a fail-safe contingency to come to the rescue of its citizens working in the Middle East and strife-prone countries.
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