MANILA, January 13, 2003 (STAR)  By Mayen Jaymalin  - Some 200 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) will be repatriated as part of contingency measures for the looming war in the Middle East, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) reported yesterday.

Labor Undersecretary Manuel Imson said the Middle East Preparedness Team (MEPT), headed by retired Armed Forces chief Gen. Roy Cimatu, recommended the immediate repatriation of the Filipino workers.

This was so the workers would not complicate the relocation of thousands of OFWs in case the conflict between the United States and Iraq turns into a full-blown war, Imson said.

He noted that these 200 Filipino workers may leave Kuwait — Iraq’s next-door neighbor — immediately since they are not currently employed and just temporarily staying at the Philippine Embassy there.

Imson, said the workers to be repatriated are "runaways" who opted to stay in the embassy while awaiting exit clearance or the result of court cases they filed against their employers.

He said 65 other runaway Filipino workers in Kuwait were repatriated late last year.

Imson, however, said the situation in Kuwait and Iraq remained normal despite the prevailing tension that is expected to escalate into a war by February.

"We have not received adverse reports as to the worsening of the situation in the Middle East," Imson said, noting that Cimatu’s team is now in the Middle East assessing the condition of the estimated 1.5 million Filipino workers there.

Earlier, DOLE said that at least 6,000 Filipino workers staying near the borders of Kuwait are likely to be relocated to safer ground if the United States decides to attack Iraq.

Imson said that as of this time, "there is no need to relocate the workers."

In a related development, Sen. Manuel Villar Jr. urged the government to set up a 24-hour hotline to answer the concerns of the families of Filipinos working in the Middle East.

Villar, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, said the call center can provide information about the government’s plans in case war erupts in the Middle East.

"The hotline would compliment the efforts" of Cimatu’s team, he said.

Villar said the DOLE, the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration may undertake the call center project, which would enable the public to know the government’s evacuation plans and prevent the spread of false information.

He said families of the Filino workers will also be interested in the efforts of the government team currently in the Middle East and what steps it has taken to protect them.

"Many Filipinos are already worried about their friends, family and relatives in the Middle East. The government can assuage their concerns by providing full information to the public," he said.

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