OFW returnees face tough homecoming

OFW returnees face tough homecoming

/ 05:40 AM February 07, 2024

HOME AT LAST In this photo taken in 2018, repatriated overseas Filipinoworkers fromKuwait fill out information sheet as they arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. —NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

HOME AT LAST In this photo taken in 2018, repatriated overseas Filipino workers from Kuwait fill out information sheet as they arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. —NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Lucy Ortega thought her nightmare as an enslaved domestic worker in Syria was finally over when she boarded a government repatriation flight back to the Philippines four years ago.

Instead, she faced a new set of problems.


Ortega was trafficked into servitude for eight years in Syria, then stranded for two years with other maids in a shelter in the Philippine Embassy when she sought help—an episode that caused outrage in the Philippines and made global headlines.


But since arriving home, she has received no government compensation for the embassy ordeal, trauma counseling or help finding work. Now 43 and with three young children, job offers are increasingly scarce, she said.

“I was enticed to work abroad because there were no good jobs in the Philippines. But since coming back, it’s become harder for me to find work,” Ortega told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her small wooden home in a shantytown in the capital, Manila.

The Philippines is among the world’s top sources of migrant labor and Filipino workers overseas sent back an estimated $40 billion in remittances to their families last year, accounting for about 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The government covers emergency repatriation costs for workers caught up in wars, political crises or exploitation abroad.

READ: Helping OFWs return for good

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.24 million Filipinos were flown home free of charge, and dozens of Filipino women and their children have recently been repatriated temporarily from Gaza and Israel because of the war.


‘Weakest link’

But with the number of Filipinos who received overseas employment certificates at a record high of about 2.5 million in 2023, migrant rights advocates are sounding the alarm about the problems faced by many returnees on arriving home—from unemployment to homelessness.

“The latest government figures mean we are sending 6,800 Filipinos per day (abroad). More and more Filipinos can be at risk, especially in conflict areas, if we fail to properly monitor all of them,” said Arman Hernando, chairperson of migrant rights group Migrante Philippines.

“Are we deploying more Filipinos than we can protect?” he asked.

Some say more must be done to support them by the country’s Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), a government agency established two years ago to facilitate overseas employment and reintegration services for returning Filipinos.

Reintegration is “the weakest link” in the country’s migration policies, according to a 2023 study by a group of university researchers on economic migrants.

Seeking to address such concerns, the DMW launched a command center in 2022 to provide rapid repatriation and welfare assistance to distressed migrant workers.

The problem, said Hernando, is that the agency only offers emergency assistance and not a comprehensive reintegration plan, which should include jobs, housing aid as well as legal advice and mental health care services.

Such an approach would also encourage the country’s migrant labor force to come home, helping to build national industry and sustain the economy’s long-term growth, economic analysts say.

The DMW and the Department of Foreign Affairs, the two agencies in charge of repatriation, did not respond to requests for comments.

No job, no home

Filipinos repatriated from Syria and recent returnees from Gaza said the government had paid for their flights and provided an emergency cash assistance of between P10,000 and P50,000.

Some of them were encouraged to use the money to start a small business.

But after spending years abroad, many migrant workers lack the social network required to launch a successful enterprise, said Hernando.

Few migrant workers have a background in self-employment, according to a survey published by the UN migration agency in 2022. It showed finding a way to make a living was rated as the biggest challenge by more than 80 percent of Filipino returnees.

Ortega, who leads a support group of 52 trafficked domestic workers repatriated from Syria, said they had received just P10,000 from the government and no other reintegration services since returning to the Philippines.

She is now working part-time in a lottery outlet, earning less than the minimum wage.

“I need a stable job for my three children who are still in school,” she said, adding that she also wanted government help to retrieve unpaid wages from her employer in Syria and redress over the conduct of embassy staff when she was marooned there.

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“I need justice, but I also need money,” she said. —THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

TAGS: Filipinos, OWF, workers

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