'Money not an issue in repatriating stranded OFWs'

by Maria Aleta Nieva Nishimori, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Apr 30 2013 03:29 PM | Updated as of May 01 2013 03:08 AM

MANILA – Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said repatriating undocumented Filipinos stranded in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is not that simple.

“It’s not so easy to repatriate because it’s not a matter of money. We can pay for the airfare. We can pay for whatever needs they have to be able to get them out,” del Rosario said.

Del Rosario clarified that government budget is not an issue in bringing home distressed OFWs from the kingdom.

“Not at all. If that were the issue, all of them would be home,” he said.

Foreign workers, including Filipinos, must follow a process that is strictly implemented in Saudi Arabia.

“There's a process that they follow. For example, you have to get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from their employers and these employers are sometimes hard to find. And when you find them, you have to negotiate with them. So were trying to help out with this particular requirement,” he said.

Hundreds of stranded Filipino workers, including children, have camped out beside the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah calling out to the Philippine government to repatriate them.

Del Rosario said the Philippine government is doing everything it can to assist OFWs in Jeddah.

“We can work on repatriating those who need to be repatriated and were helping to regularize those who still have a chance to stay,” del Rosario said on ANC’s Headstart on Tuesday.

The Saudi Arabian government has given a 90-day grace period to erring foreign workers to correct their status.

“We need to do this before they start getting arrested in 90 days. The amnesty was given for 90 days and we need to get moving. One other request that I’d like to make to the Saudi government is to give us more time.

Once the grace period ends, del Rosario said violators will be arrested and the Saudi government will arrange for their deportation.

“The basic difference, they'll be put in a detention cell in preparation for the deportation,” he said.

According to Del Rosario, he was supposed to fly to Saudi Arabia last Sunday but had to postpone the trip as the Saudi foreign minister became ill.

“Essentially, my trip was supposed to discuss with him what possible assistance we can get from the Saudi government," he said.

Aside from the ambassador, del Rosario said that an undersecretary and an assistant secretary are now working on a waiver, not only on the NOC, but also on the penalties that need to be paid with the immigration.

“A good number of the people who are there that need to be repatriated because they don’t have any basis for staying, have violated immigration laws,” he said.

Numbers vary

The number of people staying in the so-called Tent City varies. Some organizations estimated the numbers of stranded OFWs at 2,000.

“This morning we made a count of people there and there were only 623. No matter what that
number is we’re there to help out,” del Rosario said.

He said the consulate is helping provide the needs of stranded OFWs who have set up an encampment in front of the Philippine post.

“We see it’s an unhealthy situation. They don’t have food. They don’t have medicine. They don’t have the proper sanitation,” he said.

To help the OFWs, the consulate set up a facility inside its compound which can accommodate up to 500, provide food and even medicine.

“Hopefully, by this weekend we will have another 500--so a capacity of nearly a thousand,” he said.

However, even with the facilities in place, only 20 have availed of it, he said.

“They prefer to be out there to make a statement. But we’re saying to them, we hear you and we’re trying to work with the Saudi government in terms of getting you back to the Philippines. But you must cooperate with us and don’t jeopardize your families by being out there,” he said.

He also said that aside from the waivers, the Philippine government is also trying to get a much bigger place to lease where stranded OFWs, as many as 2,000, can temporarily stay.

“We’re here to help. Work with us so that we can provide you the assistance that you need,” he said.