355 OFWs safely return from Libya
MANILA, Philippines—Cheers and applause rang out as Philippine Airlines (PAL) Flight 9007 carrying 355 weary Filipinos evacuated from strife-torn Libya touched down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia).
It was 3:40 a.m. on Sunday and the passengers were in a good mood after a journey that started as a land-and-sea evacuation out of Libya and was followed by a 15-hour flight home via Malta.
As the plane taxied from the runway, a male overseas Filipino worker (OFW) told his companion that he would make sure his mother would make his favorite dish, “sisig,” now that he was finally home. Sisig is made from pig ears and cheeks, seasoned with calamansi and chili.
Several hours earlier, before midnight on Saturday, another PAL flight chartered by the Philippine government landed at Naia with 419 Filipinos from Libya. The flight also originated from Malta.
All in all, 767 Filipinos have been evacuated from Libya after fleeing the worst fighting in the last three months between armed militias seeking to control the North African country.
One evacuee identified by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) as Rodrigo Andres did not take PR9007 at Malta.
Andres disappeared after checking in his luggage at Malta International Airport.
A boat chartered by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) picked up the evacuees at the Libyan port cities of Benghazi and Misrata on Aug. 14 and 15. It sailed to Malta on Aug. 16.
The DFA paid $1.8 million to ferry the 767 Filipinos from Libya to Malta.
The sea evacuation was a one-time deal, as Libya’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt have reopened, making it possible for the more than 10,000 Filipino migrant workers remaining in Libya to use these as exits when they decide to return home.
Most of the Filipino migrant-workers have decided they have better chances of surviving in Libya, which is fast descending into civil war, than in the Philippines, where there are no jobs, according to the DFA.
Those who arrived on the two PAL flights chartered by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the OWWA have brought to 2,727 the number of Filipinos in Libya to be repatriated by the government.
Since mid-July, Libya has been rocked by fighting between militias battling for control of key population centers ahead of the sitting of a new parliament and the formation of a new government.
Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, has also seen battles between Islamists and the forces of a renegade military general.
A Filipino construction worker was abducted and then beheaded by unknown persons in Benghazi in the first few days of violence there, and a Filipino female nurse was later abducted and gang-raped in Tripoli.
“I saw a plane drop four rockets near where I worked,” Darrell Boncentron, a rosary with wooden beads and cross draped around his neck, told Agence France-Presse as he and 418 others stepped out of Naia.
The 26-year-old information technology worker said his workplace was transferred from Benghazi to the desert to shield the staff from harm just before the Philippine government instructed all Filipinos in Libya to return home.
The beheading triggered the Philippine government’s decision to try and repatriate all 13,000 Filipinos in Libya.
The Philippines also evacuated thousands of its nationals from Libya amid the 2011 violence that eventually toppled the dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that there were more than 400 Filipinos from Libya awaiting to be repatriated in Tunisia where they were evacuated recently.
Del Rosario said the government was planning to charter another PAL plane for this group.
“We are looking at a third charter flight to bring home [more than] 400 Filipinos now in Tunisia escorted there by our Tripoli post using land transportation,” Del Rosario said in a text message.
The foreign affairs secretary said he was disappointed over the incident involving Andres.
Andres landed in Malta on Saturday together with 766 other Filipino evacuees from Libya.
Andres checked in his luggage but did not show up at boarding time. Maltese airport officials reported the matter to OWWA officials and PAL crew members but they were unable to find him.
PR9007 departed Malta without Andres.
“We are of course disappointed that one of our repatriates had other designs. He is now undocumented in Malta, and yes, I will have to apologize to my friend, the foreign minister,” Del Rosario said in reply to the query whether the government had to apologize to Malta over the incident.
Del Rosario said that President Aquino had intended the repatriation to be shouldered by the Philippine government and that it be a full return to Manila. He said the Maltese government extended the necessary courtesy to the effort.
Before the 355 passengers of PR9007 disembarked, an OWWA representative boarded the plane to welcome them and relay some good news — financial help from the government.
The OWWA representative first mentioned that the returnees would be given assistance at the airport to ensure that those who have people picking them up would be able to get out immediately.
For those who have to go home to provinces, they could stay at the OWWA center to rest first. Then they would be given transport money for their trip home.
OWWA will also give them livelihood assistance.
“We will also give you P10,000 in assistance and also help you find jobs abroad. There are also jobs available (in the country),” the OWWA representative said.
What kind of financial help from the government was among the questions that some of the repatriates, like construction worker Manuel Lasin wanted to know. Most of the evacuees left Libya without being paid by their employers for up to three months because the banks were closed due to the fighting.
While waiting to board the PAL flight from Malta International Airport on Saturday, Lasin said he needed financial help because he had to finance the college education of his son.
A nurse named Lovely also said she wanted to get all the benefits she was entitled to from OWWA after going jobless due to the Libya conflict and still having a family to feed.
Their concerns and apprehensions about their financial prospects and future were answered by the OWWA representative in the two-minute talk he gave after he boarded the plane early Sunday.
The passengers then made their way to the OWWA processing center at the airport — but not before each was handed OWWA goodies in blue bags and hot breakfast of rice and chicken. With a report from AFP
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