AUGUST 14, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo assured the families of Filipino workers in Lebanon yesterday that the government would continue to ensure their safety even as the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for a ceasefire and the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the Middle East country.

In a statement, the President said "the Filipino people are deeply concerned for the thousands of our nationals still caught in the clutches of fear; and we and the global community can only operate in an environment of relative stability."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set a ceasefire Monday aimed at halting the month-long fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas and deploying about 15,000 foreign troops to help the Lebanese army bring back calm in the country’s southern region.

"Meanwhile, the government will remain steadfast in the protection of our workers in the area of conflict and we assure them that their safety would be our utmost concern no matter what the cost and the evolving situation may be," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She promised to "spare no effort to keep every Filipino safe and sound until they are brought back home or to safe sanctuary elsewhere."

The President said the Philippines hails and supports the UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Lebanon as she reiterated the government’s appeal to Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants to end their conflict for the sake of the innocent civilians caught in their war.

"We call on the warring parties to silence the guns and place the safety and welfare of innocent civilians in paramount consideration," she said.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said the Philippine government would use the ceasefire to intensify efforts to evacuate overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) out of Lebanon and urged those who refused to leave to do so now.

"We should take this opportunity, this chance to go to the previously inaccessible areas and extricate our OFWs from there," Conejos told dzBB radio station.

"We are hopeful, in fact, we should all pray that this ceasefire will hold firm on the ground but we know that a ceasefire is very fragile," he said. "Ceasefires are always violated, there are flare-ups, so now that there is still a chance, let’s leave now."

Conejos ordered the Philippine embassy in Lebanon to immediately dispatch a team to search for and evacuate Filipino workers who may still be in the southern Lebanese port cities of Tyre and Sidon, which have been pounded by Israeli airstrikes.

So far, more than 4,600 OFWs have been flown back to the country, with considerable help from the United States-funded International Organization for Migration (IOM), since evacuation efforts began last month.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has directed Ambassador to Lebanon Al Francis Bichara, Undersecretary Rafael Seguis and Ambassador Roy Cimatu "to redouble their intensity efforts to implement (Mrs.) Arroyo’s order of forced evacuation of OFWs and to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire on the ground," Conejos said.

He said the evacuation will continue until further orders from Task Force Lebanon, headed by Vice President Noli de Castro.

Conejos said some Filipinos wanted to wait out the fighting in Lebanon, complacent that the UN-sponsored ceasefire would be implemented. He said the number of Filipino evacuees is expected to decrease once the UN resolution is implemented.

Most of the Filipino workers opted to remain with their employers amid plans by Israel to intensify its ground operations against the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon.

Conejos pointed out the possibility that Israel might maximize its offensives to root out Hezbollah before the UN resolution is implemented.

DFA spokesman Gilberto Asuque said the next large batch of OFWs from Lebanon is scheduled to arrive this Tuesday on another chartered flight funded by the IOM.

He said the DFA and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) were bracing for another big push to evacuate several thousands more of OFWs from Lebanon in view of the reported start of the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.

Asuque said that they were still coordinating with the IOM for more chartered flights that can be funded by the agency to evacuate OFWs out of Lebanon.

$ remittances not affected

Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Arturo Brion said the evacuation of Filipino workers from Lebanon will not adversely affect the dollar remittances to the country this year.

Brion said there are only about 30,000 Filipino workers in Lebanon and that they comprise a small part of the country’s dollar earners.

Reports said OFWs’ dollar remittances increased by 30 percent to $1.14 billion last May, which is considered as the highest monthly growth level since June last year.

The total dollar remittances in 2005 was $10.7 billion.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) reported that dollar remittances for the first five months of 2006 reached $4.9 billion, up by 14.8 percent from the previous year.

Brion said if ever the OFWs’ evacuation affects dollar remittances, it will just be temporary.

He said Filipino workers in the US are still the highest dollar earners for the Philippines. The government plans to deploy more Filipinos to rich countries such as the US, Spain and Canada.

Brion said the government expects Spain to be the Filipinos’ entry point in the European Union job market.

As for Canada, Brion said he has already discussed the deployment of OFWs there with Ambassador Chito Brillantes. He added that there are recruitment agencies that are already sending Filipinos to Canada.

The government considers the OFWs’ dollar remittances as a significant factor in stabilizing the country’s economy.

The BSP reported that from 1990 to 2004, remittances from overseas Filipinos reached $75 billion. Most of these Filipinos worked in the US, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Japan, Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Germany, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

The country has been dependent on dollar remittances that have kept the economy afloat for years. — With Rainier Allan Ronda, Helen Flores, AP

GMA turns NAIA into campaign stump The Philippine Star 08/14/2006

President Arroyo turned the arrival of the latest batch of Filipino workers late Saturday night into what looked like a campaign stump.

At around 11:40 p.m. Saturday, 446 overseas Filipino workers arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on board an Orient Thai Airways flight chartered by the United States-funded International Organization for Migration (IOM). This batch of OFWs was described as the most cheerful to be evacuated thus far.

The IOM has funded the repatriation of at least seven large batches of OFWs from Lebanon, six of these via chartered flights using jumbo jets or Boeing B747s.

As Mrs. Arroyo welcomed the OFWs at NAIA Terminal 1’s Gate 3 boarding gate, officials of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Department of Foreign Affairs held a program for the evacuees.

The disturbance brought about by the program caused some passengers of a departing Cathay Pacific Airways flight for Hong Kong to complain.

The OFWs were also reported to have left behind spilled iced tea and hot soup for airport personnel to clean up after the program ended. — Rainier Allan Ronda

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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