JULY 20, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - The government is seeking international help, specifically from the United States and the Vatican, in securing overseas Filipino workers in Lebanon and Israel as it evacuates 200 OFWs today from Beirut.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the government has contacted US Ambassador Kristie Kenney requesting that US facilities in Israel and Lebanon be opened to OFWs who might need them.

He said Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. has also called on Papal Nuncio Archbishop Fernando Filoni to get Pope Benedict XVI’s help in requesting churches in Lebanon to provide sanctuary for distressed Filipinos.

Charge d’Affaires Evan Garcia of the Philippine Embassy in Washington has made representations with the US State Department, through its Operations Center, for assistance in the repatriations.

Garcia said the US government has agreed to help evacuate OFWS in Lebanon.

"The State Department advised that although the first priority of the US is the evacuation of American nationals, the US government will try to help evacuate Filipinos as well, to the extent that it would be safe to do so, and within the limits of available resources," Garcia said in a report to Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo.

The 200 workers who will be coming home today will be transported from Beirut by bus to Damascus in Syria where a chartered plane from Kurdistan Airways will take them to Dubai free of charge.

The workers were actually due to return to the country even before the hostilities erupted. They are mostly distressed workers and abandoned by employers. Eighty have been staying in OFW resource centers, 36 were from deportation centers in Lebanon for violating immigration laws, and the rest were abandoned by their employers.

The government, however, said there is no need to make a forced evacuation of all 30,000 workers in Lebanon yet since widespread violence has not erupted. Only around a thousand have so far expressed desire to go home.

"Our OFWs are in a better position to assess the danger. So, we should not panic here in the Philippines and pressure the OFWs to go home. What the government is doing now is to provide an option," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said.

President Arroyo promised yesterday that in the event of a full evacuation, "no one will be left behind" as Philippine diplomats have secured guarantees of safe passage from Israel and Lebanon’s neighboring countries for the evacuation.

Conejos also assured that should the situation worsen, the President is ready to put up funds to ensure the safety of Filipino workers.

"The President said she’s not going to count the cost for every OFW. Every life is sacred," Conejos said. Some $500,000 was initially set aside for the evacuation of workers.

Ermita said the Palace is pulling all stops in seeking the assistance of foreign governments for a possible full evacuation.

The US military, he said, particularly the 6th Fleet of the US Naval forces in Europe, has many vessels and helicopters that the Philippines can hopefully request in case the situation worsens.

Way out

At present, six routes are being considered to evacuate Filipinos — by sea from Beirut to Cyprus and from Beirut to Rhodes Island in Greece; and by land from Beirut to Tarsus in Northern Syria, from Beirut to Merlin in Turkey, from Beirut to Damascus, and from Beirut to the northern mountains of Lebanon to an old Maronite Christian fortress.

The roads to Damascus were heavily bombed but Philippine authorities were exploring secondary roads.

"The most important thing is to clear our movement with the Israeli military so we can safely move our OFWs," said Conejos.

He said the negotiations for the safe passage were done by Romulo and the Philippine Consul in Israel and the Israeli government gave assurance on its commitment to the safety of Filipinos.

The sea route was earlier believed to be not feasible as Foreign Affairs spokesman Gilbert Asuque said the Philippines have no ships where Filipinos can board unlike American and French nationals.

However, special envoy to the Middle East retired general Roy Cimatu was tasked to charter passenger ships that could ferry the next batch of OFWs from Lebanon to any of the four countries designated for repatriation.

Conejos revealed that Ambassador to Greece Rigoberto Tiglao has chartered the ship M/V Petra to ferry Filipinos from Beirut to Cyprus and the vessel remains on standby.

Tiglao is reportedly en route to Cyprus to lay the groundwork for the reception of Filipinos in Limassol port and to escort them to Larnaca Airport for the flight to Turkey.

In Turkey, Ambassador Bahnarin Guinomla is making representations to the Foreign Ministry to facilitate the entry and assistance of Filipinos who will go back to Manila via Turkey.

Special envoy to the Gulf States Amable Aguiluz V is also making representations with the Gulf States, especially Bahrain, for their assistance in airlifting OFWs who may be passing through on their way to Manila.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has also transmitted notes verbale to the embassies of France, United Kingdom and Italy in Manila for their assistance in accommodating Filipinos in their respective vessels leaving Lebanon.

Romulo himself had spoken to British Ambassador Peter Beckingham regarding the country’s request for assistance. Beckingham assured Romulo of his assistance in conveying to the British government the Philippine government’s request.

The Geneva-based International Organization of Migration said earlier it was coordinating with the Philippines in organizing evacuations.

Meanwhile, as there is no widespread violence yet in the streets of Beirut, Conejos advised OFWS to stay with their employers where they are safe.

However, in the event that their employers leave Lebanon, they can go to the Philippine relocation site at the Church of the Miraculous Medal.

Cimatu disclosed that 90 to 95 percent of OFWs in Lebanon are domestic helpers and are dependent on the acts of their employers. If their employers decide to stay put, they will also stay put. But if their employers decide to evacuate, they will also evacuate.

He made assurances that a plan for total evacuation is already being drawn up.

"The ambassadors and embassies in different Middle Eastern countries have their own ways of providing assistance. They have tasks to perform," he said.

In light of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, the Philippine Overseas Employment Authority (POEA) said deployment of Filipino workers to Lebanon would be stopped indefinitely.

"Besides, the airport in Beirut was damaged, so there’s no means for our workers to go there," POEA chief Rosalinda Baldoz said.

She said the ban would be enforced until the situation returns to normal.

Before the hostilities between the Israeli military and Hezbollah militants, an average of 75 OFWs were deployed to Lebanon daily, mostly domestic helpers.

Now, companies deploying Filipino workers to Lebanon have pledged to put up a crisis center in Manila that would receive inquiries from relatives of Filipino workers in Beirut.

Estrelita Hizon, president of the Philippine Association of Mediterranean Agencies Deploying Labours Inc., is appealing to telecom companies to help them set up free call centers that would help families of workers get in touch with their relatives in Beirut.

Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz said the President had also instructed them to establish hotlines and communication facilities.

The office of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) will also activate its 17 regional crisis centers here so people will not have to go to Manila to know how their relatives in Lebanon are doing.

More government action needed

Senators urged the national government yesterday to exert more effort in assisting Filipino workers in Lebanon.

Senate committee on labor and employment chairman Jinggoy Estrada said the OWWA should immediately release funds for the evacuation.

He noted that the OWWA is funded by OFW contributions so it must be used for the welfare and protection of workers and their families.

He also called on OWWA to provide financial assistance to workers returning home until they find alternative jobs. The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), he said, should also prepare a reintegration program for displaced workers.

Meanwhile, a militant lawmaker urged Mrs. Arroyo to make use of her discretionary funds to relocate the 30,000 OFWs in Beirut.

Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel said the government should divert its P2 billion kitty from smugglers and funds for its "envelopmental dinners" with bishops to OFWs.

"The President should use her resources to finance the immediate evacuation of our workers. Since the conflict continues to worsen, evacuation is the only option," she said.

Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., for his part, emphasized that Filipinos in Lebanon need all the assurances from the government that they would be kept out of harm’s way. — Pia Lee-Brago, Paolo Romero, Rainier Allan Ronda, James Mananghaya, Marvin Sy, Delon Porcalla, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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