For the second time in three years, Libya is convulsed by violence. As in the first time, when rebels successfully ousted long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, not all Filipinos working in Libya want to go home. In 2011, according to government statistics, about 1,600 out of some 30,000 overseas Filipino workers in Libya stayed throughout the uprising. This year, as the fighting between competing rebel factions worsens into civil war, the proportion is even more lopsided; out of some 13,000 OFWs in the country, only about 800 have gone home, with another 800 on the waiting list.
“We are having the same problem that we had in 2011. It’s difficult to convince people to leave,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said. He attributed the OFWs’
reluctance to the prospect of joblessness at home.
The truth of this statement seems to be obvious.
Despite the recent turmoil, oil-rich Libya remains a lucrative destination for qualified workers from other countries, not just the Philippines. The Libyan hospital system, for instance, hosts thousands of foreign health workers; about 20 percent of the staff comes from India, but the vast majority, about 60 percent, comes from the Philippines.
Despite the worsening situation in Libya, punctuated by the abduction and reported gang-rape of a Filipino nurse on her way to work last week, many of the 3,000 or so Filipino doctors and nurses working in Libyan hospitals may still look at the desert country as the figuratively greener pasture, compared to the Philippines.
If this bit of conventional wisdom is in fact accurate, then our OFWs in Libya (and in other violence-wracked countries) face an existential choice. To try to survive the violence in a foreign country in order to make a decent living, or to go home and probably earn much less.
But is this reading of the situation in fact true?
The Department of Foreign Affairs has emphasized that it had given the OFWs in Libya ample warning. “We’ve had that advisory [the notice to Filipinos in Libya to leave the country] for two months, but less than a thousand [OFWs] have come home,” DFA spokesperson Charles Jose told the media on Aug. 1.
But the daughter of one such OFW, in a letter to the editor published in this newspaper on July 26, suggested that bureaucratic procedures prevented Filipino workers from leaving Libya immediately: “my father, Romeo L. Bobadilla, cannot avail himself of the volunteer repatriation program [announced by the Philippine embassy]. According to my father, OFWs in areas below Crisis Alert Level 3 are required to get an exit permit/letter from their employers before their travel documents such as a visa could be processed.” The last time Bobadilla got in touch with his daughter was on July 13.
It was only last Friday, Aug. 1, that Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz announced that OFWs can now leave Libya without needing exit visas or even negotiating with their Libyan employers. “This also means that
Filipino workers who wish to avail of the mandatory repatriation need not beg with their employers to allow them to leave Libya.”
What does all this mean? It suggests that the thousands-of-OFWs-refuse-to-leave-Libya explanation may be too pat, too simplistic. What if, like Bobadilla, many other Filipino workers in Libya had wanted to leave the violence-ridden country but could not, because the Crisis Alert Level was raised too late, or because their Libyan employers still enjoyed the power to refuse until the conflict had reached the capital itself?
Now is not the time to fix blame. The focus must be on repatriating as many OFWs as possible. But the violence in the troubled country has reached a new level of intensity; it has become much harder for any expatriate to leave Libya today, because some of the main exits (the airports in Tripoli and other major cities, the border crossing into Tunisia) have become unavailable. As of the weekend, the embassy in Tripoli had chartered a ship from Malta to evacuate as many as 1,500 people early this week, Del Rosario said. However, possible pick-up points (Benghazi, Misrata, Tripoli) are trouble spots too.
This means the choice confronting our OFWs in Libya remains bleak: Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.
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