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PH seeks humane treatment on Filipinos detained in Saudi

Filipino refugee camp next to the Philippine embassy in Jeddah. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine government has sought assurances from Saudi Arabia for the humane treatment of Filipino workers arrested for overstaying in light of reports that some experienced abuse in detention before they were sent home, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Tuesday.

At the same time, a Malacañang spokesperson vowed to “defend the dignity and rights” of all overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Arab country as he disclosed plans to regulate the export of labor, particularly unskilled workers.

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“If there is sufficient proof that this happened, and they (OFWs) are ready to file a formal case, our government will help them obtain justice for what they’ve been through,” Presidential Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma said in a briefing.

But Del Rosario said no Filipino had so far been accosted in Saudi Arabia amid its crackdown on illegal immigrants that began Monday as part of its “Saudization” program, which has required private companies to employ Saudi nationals as part of their regular workforce.

“We don’t have any such report of anyone (undocumented overseas Filipino workers) being arrested,” Del Rosario told reporters in a press conference on Tuesday.

He said Philippine missions in Saudi Arabia had yet to receive any complaints of abuse of OFWs but that the foreign office would verify such report.

On Monday, 30 workers, who were deported from Saudi Arabia, immediately relayed their ordeal upon their arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

A woman said their feet were chained after Saudi police rounded them up and placed them in a crowded cell for four days before they were paraded from the immigration center to the airport.

The deportees were among an estimated 6,700 Filipino workers stranded in parts of Saudi Arabia where an amnesty for undocumented foreigners ended on Sunday.

“We are checking this very quickly because… we don’t have, on a basis of our ocular observations, there is no report as articulated by a lady who has come home, that they were crowded in a detention cell and actually chained. We did note see that,” said Del Rosario.

He said said Philippine officials in the Arab country had been dispatched to make rounds of detention and deportation centers after the lapse of the Nov. 3 correction deadline.

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He said the foreign office was locating the woman to get further details on her experience.

The Philippine Embassy is also touching base with the Saudi Human Rights Council “to check what the procedures are so we can make sure that our people are being treated properly.”

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Manila said its government “shall consider the status” of workers who had started the correction process but failed to meet the Nov. 3 deadline.

“They shall be given the opportunity to complete the procedures provided that they can submit (pieces of) evidence as proof that they have commenced the procedures,” the Embassy said in a statement.

The full extent of Saudi’s immigration law would meanwhile apply on undocumented workers who failed to initiate the correction procedure before the lapse of Sunday’s deadline, the end of the four-month grace period the Kingdom granted foreign nationals illegally working there.

It was already the second deadline for regularization as the Saudi government initially gave undocumented foreigners until July to process their regularization or return home.

“Anyone caught after this grace period and failing to submit any proof that he has started the correction of his status shall be dealt with accordingly under the rule of law such as the imposition of penalties and fines now being undertaken by the Ministry of the Interior,” the mission said.

Those still wishing to correct their status could proceed “but without any exemptions from fees or regulations,” the Embassy said.

An unknown number of undocumented Filipinos remain in Saudi Arabia, a figure that is difficult to establish precisely because illegals “maintain a very quiet existence” given their status, according to Del Rosario.

The Commission on Filipinos Overseas meanwhile has an estimate of about 108,000 irregular or “undocumented” Filipinos out of the total 1.27 million Philippine citizens in the Kingdom. Official figures of the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, meanwhile, counts 660,000 Filipinos legally staying in Saudi Arabia, according to Del Rosario.

During the grace period, the Philippines issued travel documents to up to 11,000 undocumented Filipinos. Of this number, some 5,000 were repatriated while nearly 1,600 are awaiting their immigration clearances.

The remainder include Filipinos who may either decide to continue the regularization process or risk overstaying as an undocumented worker, Del Rosario said.

Asked about delays in processing Filipinos for either repatriation or regularization, Del Rosario pointed to the indecision of some OFWs as a factor. Some also had to face cases filed by employers against them, further delaying the processing of their papers.

“If you look at Libya, Syria, places where we’ve had to repatriate our people from, Filipinos do not make a quick decision. For them, it’s also a process in terms of their decision making. It’s not done very quickly, [they are] not very decisive,” said Del Rosario.

He said the Philippine government augmented its staff at the Riyadh and Jeddah posts to provide assistance to the volume of Filipinos processing their documents.

“The Philippine government has done everything possible to facilitate the repatriation of our people. It’s a process, and you have to undergo that process to be a repatriated. Contributing to the delay of repatriation is the indecision of our own people,” said the official.

Saudi Arabia has long been one of the top destinations for Filipino workers. Last year, Filipinos in the Kingdom sent home an estimated $1.7 billion (P73 billion) in remittances, according to figures of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Coloma answered in the affirmative when the Philippine Daily Inquirer asked whether the government under the present administration had seen the need for a reevaluation of the policy with regards to sending workers, particularly unskilled labor force, to the Middle East and beyond.

“So that’s the thrust of our government now, and I agree with the proposition that this incident (in Saudi Arabia) … is a good opportunity to change our policies, so that they would help generate more opportunities for our workers and our people (locally),” said Coloma.

He said President Aquino had repeated a number of times in his speeches, especially when he trumpeted the gains of a surging economy, his desire “to create sufficient job opportunities for our countrymen right here in our country.”

“That’s one of the goals of our government in pursuing a program of sustainable long-term inclusive growth—that we are able to create sufficient job opportunities, that we are able to create attractive job opportunities—so that it would become attractive to our people (to work here) although they have an option to avail of these job offers abroad,” said Coloma.

The presidential spokesperson said affording OFWs “a clear option to work in our own country” would spare them from the “side effects” of being separated from their families, and from adding to the countless cases of broken families.

He said that since the 70s, when the Marcos regime started exporting labor amid an economic downturn brought about by the oil crisis, the country “has concretely experienced” the side effects of labor migration.

“We are marking the fourth decade from that period now and if I recall correctly, that was then heralded as a stop-gap measure when dealing with economic adjustment problems largely brought about by the oil crisis,” he said.

Coloma explained that the labor export of the country came after the Marcos regime subscribed to the “operation of the principle of comparative advantage in economics,” which meant that the country had asked Middle East countries for a favorable oil price deal in exchange for “abundant skilled human resources.”

“This practice has flourished over four decades. But we will recall that at every opportunity—President Aquino points this out—that the government is vigorously promoting the program of inclusive growth, so that we could begin to include Filipino migrant workers (in the equation),” he said.

He did say that in the proposed national budget for 2014, every department incorporated programs to “generate local employment and to upgrade the skill sets of our countrymen because many of our countrymen are being taken advantage of overseas because they belong to (the category of) lower skill sets.”

He said there was a “conscious effort” in the government to set up manufacturing industries starting next year to offset the over-emphasis on the service industry and Business Process Outsourcing as engines of growth.

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TAGS: Albert Del Rosario, Department of Foreign Affairs, Deportation, Global Nation, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Overseas Filipino workers, overseas work, Overstaying, Philippine government
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