MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is now working to safely repatriate Filipinos in Syria, particularly those located in 4 conflict-ridden areas of Homs, Hama, Idlib and Daraa.
“The foreign minister promised to assist us in terms of writing to the local mayors and governors of these 4 conflict areas to try to assist in the repatriation of these distressed OFWs,” DFA Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said in an interview with ANC on Tuesday.
Conejos said they now have about 40 Filipinos in Homs who expressed their intention to be repatriated.
“They are priority number 1. We are now validating the presence of 40 OFWs in Homs and we sent today a note verbale to the foreign ministry identifying them and asking the local officials to assist in their repatriation,” he said.
The second priority, he said, are those who have registered with the embassy and have expressed their desire to be repatriated and have completed the negotiations with their employers.
The third batch is composed of another 200 OFWs whom the embassy is in the process of closing negotiations with their employers.
“The secretary left already but he asked me to stay on to ensure that we operationalize the agreements that we had with them (Syrian foreign ministry) yesterday,” Conejos said.
DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday estimated there are a few thousand OFWs in the 4 identified conflict areas.
“We don't know what it’s like now and that is why we are trying to get the assistance of the Syrian ministry to supplement and be able to solidify our old information,” del Rosario said.
“Currently, these governorates, as they are referred to, are absolutely restricted. Diplomats are not allowed to go in there,” he said.
Del Rosario said they went to Syria to review the repatriation efforts of the Philippine government and sough help from their Syrian counterparts.
“We came to Syria for our two-fold purpose. One is to review our repatriation program, and secondly, to seek the assistance of the foreign ministry of Syria in terms of a successful implementation of this repatriation initiative that we are currently undertaking,” he said.
Del Rosario said OFWs in Syria are mostly household service workers, of which 95 percent are undocumented.
“Consequently, it is very difficult for us to be able to maintain accurate data on undocumented Filipinos in the area,” he said.
There are already some 500 OFWs who have been repatriated from Syria.
“We are working on 200 more repatriated in the next few weeks, followed by another 200 in the following weeks thereafter,” he said.
However, the DFA has been receiving different reactions from OFWs.
“On some days when there is a car bomb, more of them are expressing the need to want to be repatriated. The next day when its peaceful again, then there would be a change of mind. You get this ‘neither here, nor there’ expression of repatriation from them. But we are saying to them, we’re always there if you need to be repatriated,” he said.
The Philippine government is estimated to spend about $5,000 for each OFW repatriated from Syria
“That is our estimate based on the four cost components of repatriating a Filipino from Syria--plane fare, cost of exit visas, cost of penalties and charges for overstaying, and the deployment cost that we have to refund to the employers,” Conejos said.
Conejos said there are no problems about the funds. “We're already talking to the airline companies for reservations to bring them home,” he said.