Palace braces for return of 500,000 Pinoys

By Perseus Echeminada, The Philippine Star

Posted at Mar 07 2013 08:16 AM | Updated as of Mar 07 2013 04:16 PM

MANILA, Philippines - A crisis management committee activated by President Aquino when the Sabah stand-off began has drawn up contingency plans in case of forced deportation or mass evacuation of an estimated 500,000 Filipinos from the disputed territory.

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz meanwhile said that the government was “unlikely (to) require Filipinos staying and working in Sabah and Malaysia to immediately return home.”

“While we are hoping that the crisis will soon be resolved, we still are preparing for the worst case scenario,” Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Mujiv Hataman said during a roundtable discussion on the Sabah issue with STAR editors yesterday.

Baldoz, on the other hand, said that the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) will depend on the assessment of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) but “at this time there is no deployment ban and no mandatory repatriation.”

Hataman, who heads the crisis management committee, said the worst-case scenario is the massive exodus of Filipinos from Sabah if the hostilities drag on.

He said food packs, relief goods and medicine for 500,000 people are now ready for the displaced Filipinos coming back to their places of origin in Mindanao and Sulu.

Hataman said he is now in close contact with his Malaysian counterparts, who are also assisting displaced Malaysians in the affected areas.

He said although Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak promised President Aquino that there will be no forced deportation, they are expecting mass evacuation if the fighting spreads to other parts of Sabah.

The crisis management committee has established contact with the group of Agbimuddin Kiram and his more than 200 followers who are now holed up in the hinterlands of Lahad Datu.

Hataman said the crisis management committee is now providing medical and other assistance to the families left behind by the members of the royal sultanate army who joined the Lahad Datu expedition.

He said the main priority of the government is to save the lives of the remaining members of the sultanate who had relayed their intentions to return to their families.

Prices in Tawi-Tawi soar

The crisis management committee is also drawing up plans to address the rising prices of basic commodities as trading in the area stopped due to the ongoing military operation in Sabah.

Hataman said people in the area are dependent on the supply of basic commodities from Sabah because of their proximity to the island.

He said due to lack of supply the prices of basic commodities has increased by 30 to 40 percent since the stand-off began.

Merchants in Tawi-Tawi are now complaining of food shortage due to the closure of the shipping route linking the provincial capital and island towns to trading ports in Sabah.

About 80 percent of consumer goods sold in the markets of Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi, and surrounding island municipalities come from Sabah.

A local official said the effects of the conflict in Sabah are now being felt in parts of ARMM.

No repatriation

Baldoz said that a majority of Filipinos in Malaysia are in the central part of the country and even the Filipino communities in Sabah are unaffected because they are far from the area of conflict.

She said the DOLE has not received any request for repatriation because they do not want to leave their jobs.

However, she said she ordered the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to meet with local recruitment agencies and discuss possible contingency measures.

Baldoz said there were no reports of Filipinos getting displaced as a result of the dispute and “those who have returned home recently are among those who were deported because they have no working permit and are considered illegal migrants.”

Vice President Jejomar Binay had already instructed the DOLE to set up receiving areas for overseas Filipino workers in Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga.

Baldoz allayed fears of some migrants on the possibility of Malaysia intensifying the crackdown on undocumented Filipinos due to the dispute.

She said most of those who were deported from Malaysia were farm, construction and tourism workers.

“There are employment opportunities for those who were deported and if they want to stay for good, the government can also provide skills training that would help them become entrepreneurs,” Baldoz said. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Jose Rodel Clapano, John Unson