Manila, March 20, 2003 -- The Philippine government has suspended the deployment of Filipino workers to the Middle East region after the United States staged its first attack early Thursday on Baghdad.

According to Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople, the processing of application for Filipinos in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iraq has been put on hold. "I called on the Department of Labor and Employment to put this policy into effect immediately," Ople, in a press conference, said yesterday.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) was also ordered to stop processing the travel papers of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to prevent them from leaving the country.

Contracts that are already processed and being processed will not be affected by the temporary suspension.

Ople requested Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas and POEA Administrator Lina Baldoz to temporarily halt the sending of workers there until conditions in the Middle East stabilized.

Also, the Foreign Affairs chief explained his agency will continue to issue passports but with limitation of travel to the four countries mentioned.

The countries affected by the temporary ban have already been informed by the Philippine government's move, he said.

"The order to freeze deployment of workers also provides for exemptions as exigencies may require which can be granted by the secretary of Foreign Affairs or the secretary of Labor," Ople noted.

Under Department Order 42-03, the suspension is effective as of yesterday until further notice to ensure the safety and welfare of OFWs who are intending to work in the countries of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Israel, said to be the far-most affected countries during the war.

"Owing to the imminence of war and the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East, the Labor department, after close consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), decided that a suspension of the deployment of OFWs to the four countries is the best action to take at this moment," Manuel Imson, Labor undersecretary, said.

"We have no choice but to cancel their flights. They should remain here (in Manila) for their own safety and welfare," Imson added.

The DoLE also requested Bureau of Immigration (BI) personnel assigned at airports nationwide to hold off the flights of prospective workers leaving for the four countries.

Due to the Iraqi crisis, BI-Ninoy Aquino International Airport head supervisor Ferdinand Sampol noted a substantial decrease in the number of OFWs leaving for Middle East countries.

Despite the decrease, Sampol said there is still a handful who appear unmindful of the US-Iraq war and opted to leave due to commitments and monetary considerations.

The decline in the departure of Filipinos was particularly noted in countries like Kuwait, Dubai, Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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