MANILA, Philippines - Most Filipino workers in Syria do not want to be repatriated back to the Philippines, according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.
Del Rosario has just returned from a 2-day trip to Syria, where he met with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials and Filipino community leaders to discuss the government's repatriation efforts.
"We talked with the Filipino community leaders, and oddly enough, 25 of the leaders and not a single one wanted to be repatriated because of the lack of economic opportunities (in the Philippines)," he said, in a press conference at the Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.
The Philippine government has ordered the mandatory repatriation of all Filipinos in Syria, after the DFA raised crisis alert level from 3 to 4 last Dec. 22 amid escalating violence.
While many are reluctant to leave, the DFA said there are some 200 OFWs who are set to be repatriated within the next 2 weeks. The embassy is also in the process of negotiating with the employers of 200 OFWs, who will return to the Philippine within the month.
This would bring to 1,000 the total number of OFWs who have returned to the Philippines from Syria since March.
However, this will only be 10% of the Syrian government's estimate that there are 10,000 Filipinos living and working in the country. The Philippine embassy earlier said there are only 5,000 Filipinos, both documented and undocumented, on its registry.
"I didn't see too many people who were enthusiastic about being repatriated. I didn't talk to anyone who wanted to be repatriated. I think if we get 20% of the estimated universe of 10,000, that would be a pretty good figure," del Rosario said.
It costs at least $4,000 to repatriate an OFW from Syria, which includes the negotiated deployment cost to the employer, the penalty to the immigration office and the air fare. The government is shouldering the costs, and Del Rosario assured there are enough funds for the repatriation effort.
Del Rosario also expressed dismay that despite a deployment ban to Syria, some Filipinos continue to enter the country to look for work.
"Even now, where there's a deployment ban, people are coming in the backdoor, so as we bring people out, new people are coming back," he said.
Help from Syrian government
During his visit to Syria, Del Rosario met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Damascus on Monday. The Syrian government expressed support for the Philippines' repatriation efforts.
Del Rosario said the Syrian Foreign Minister agreed to help in reaching Filipinos, who are in the conflict-stricken areas of Homs, Hama, Idlib and Daraa. Diplomats are not allowed to go in these 4 areas, which makes it difficult for the Philippine officials to assist Filipinos living there.
"They said they would contact the local officials and get them to cooperate and bring the people out for us. We're working out the mechanism for this," he said.
Al-Moallem also promised to help the Philippine embassy in building a database of Filipino workers in Syria. He also approved the embassy's request to publish advertisements in 2 major newspapers to inform Filipinos of the alert level 4 and mandatory repatriation.
Meanwhile, del Rosario said the DFA is reviewing the adequacy of its contingency plan, in case the violence escalates in Syria.
The DFA has sent 8 Arabic-speaking staff to Damascus to assist in the repatriation efforts, particularly in negotiations with employers of OFWs.