The Libyan trap: A tragedy of our own making
The primordial role of government, according to the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes is to secure the life and limb of its citizens. I would disagree with Hobbes’ point that this is the primary role of government, but yes, I agree that providing security is one of the state’s main functions.
Using this standard, the Philippine government has failed badly in its duty to safeguard the life and limb of its citizens in Libya. 13,000 of them are now trapped in the crossfire between rival Islamist and non-Islamist militias that rule the country. Amazingly, however, spokespersons for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) are resorting to blaming the victim. Their narrative goes: “it’s the fault of these hardheaded OFWs that they’re now trapped in Libya. We told them to leave weeks back but they insisted on staying because they value their jobs more than their lives.”
It’s true that some OFWs don’t want to leave because they’re earning hard-earned dollars they would not be able to earn back home. But the key issue that the DFA and DOLE want to cover up–to the extent that Secretary Albert del Rosario has engaged in mock heroics and flown to Tunisia–allegedly to supervise the repatriation of our workers–is why the DFA and DOLE allowed the deployment of our workers to Libya in the first place, and why they did not impose the deployment until it was too late.
The tragedy of our trapped OFWs in Libya is largely the government’s own making. It is the result of a massive policy blunder that is rooted, in great part, on these two agencies’ desire to appease transnational corporations operating in Libya that depend a great deal on the flow of Filipino labor.
When hostilities unfolded between Muammar Khadaffy and the NATO-backed forces that wanted to dislodge him back in 2011, our government was able to repatriate some 10,000 workers, a feat that involved negotiating for safe conduct of our workers with the two sides in conflict.
When the hostilities ended, the DFA and DOLE lifted the deployment ban in October 2011. As a result, the bulk of the repatriated workers streamed back to Libya and were joined by more workers in search of jobs. Now, we can understand the DOLE and DFA decision at that time, given that there were expectations that after Khadaffy was overthrown, peace and stability would return to Libya. But what one cannot understand though is that the DFA and DOLE did not reimpose the travel and deployment ban when things began to deterioriate in 2012 and 2013. By the middle of 2012, it was clear that the authority of the new central government had melted away and the country was now effectively controlled by scores of rival Islamist and anti-Islamist militias. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which took the life of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and several others, should have served as a stark signal that things were going awry and it was time to impose a deployment ban.
Complacency reigned, however, and Filipinos continued to flow into Libya even as some countries like China and Thailand discouraged their nationals from returning in large numbers to the strife-torn land. When the deployment ban was finally reimposed in June this year, following months of intensifying clashes between the militias, it was too late.
Following the beheading of an OFW in the third week of July, the DFA announced Alert Level 4, meaning the situation had become so dire that the 13,000 Filipinos in the country were told to flee the country or risk their life or limb. By that time, the country’s airports were closed, roads to the ports in Benghazi and Tripoli were blocked by militia checkpoints, and the main border crossing to Tunisia was in danger of being closed. Worse, there was no evacuation plan.
The DOLE and DFA’s scapegoat for the mess is Ambassador Oscar Orsine, who was until recently the top Philippine official in that country. Orsine, they say, should have given the signal to impose the travel and deployment ban, but he sent none. This is a copout, since the DFA and DOLE leaderships should have been constantly monitoring the situation in Manila over the last few months as news of Libya’s descent into chaos mounted.
But was there something else operating that prevented the DFA and DOLE from imposing the ban?
At the hearings of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs on July 30, DFA officials revealed that transnational corporations in Libya dependent on Philippine labor were planning to launch a “Shame the Philippines” campaign to force the government to lift the deployment ban it finally imposed in June. Apparently, they had been pressing the government for months not to impose the ban. And when the DFA and DOLE finally imposed the ban, they made an exception for technicians needed by Italian oil companies, according to a source at the DFA.
The entrapment of our workers in Libya is a tragedy of our government’s own making. It was a tragedy that could have been averted had the DFA and DOLE not succumbed to pressures from transnational corporations that demanded Filipino laborers even if this meant exposing our workers to grave danger.
Even as the options are narrowing, it is the responsibility of our officials that fed workers to the “maw of war,” as human rights advocate Ruben Carranza puts it, to go to the brink to pull them out, even if this means negotiating and paying off the scores of militias to provide safe conduct for our OFWs.
The leaderships of DFA and DOLE must be held accountable for letting this tragedy unfold.
We must never ever allow it to happen gain to our citizens.
*Walden Bello is the chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs of the House of Representatives to the Philippines.
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