Lebanon helps mass repatriation of OFWs

By Rhyse Furio, ABS–CBN Middle East News Bureau

Posted at Feb 02 2011 12:42 PM | Updated as of Feb 08 2011 08:57 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The past three months have witnessed a wave of mass repatriations of distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the Philippine embassy stated.

According to embassy officials, this is due to closer collaboration between the embassy and the Lebanese General Security.
 
“Mass repatriations normally occur twice a year—mid–year and in December,” said Salome Mendoza, assistant labor attaché of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office. “It’s only as we approached 2011 that they’ve happened successively.”
 
The quick succession of mass repatriations resulted in the temporary emptying of the embassy’s Filipino Resource Center (FRC) on January 15, when the remaining 15 wards were sent home, followed by 8 from detention centers who were repatriated on January 17.
 
Accompanying the January 15 batch were two General Security officials: Mjr. Nader Abi Nader and Lt. Fadi Malak. Since then, the 2 officials have been meeting with their counterparts from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), especially to discuss the quick repatriation of OFWs.
 
“We invited the two General Security officials to look into the deployment program in the Philippines,” said Ambassador Gilberto Asuque. “So it is an opportunity for them to see how we ensure that Filipinos who work abroad are protected.”
 
The mass repatriations began in June 2010, with the biggest batch of 162 distressed OFWs being repatriated on November 14 and 15: 127 from the FRC, 17 from detention centers, 2 from Caritas Lebanon Migrants’ Center and 16 who overstayed their visas.
 
This was followed on January 11 by the repatriation of 59 distressed OFWs: 53 from the FRC, and 6 from detention centers.
 
In all, 449 distressed OFWs have been repatriated within this 7–month period, according to Asuque.
 
“That means 449 experienced physical and verbal abuse, and we don’t want that to happen to Filipinos when they work in Lebanon,” said Asuque. “That’s why we have announced that the embassy is continuing negotiations with the Lebanese government for a memorandum of understanding.”
 
According to Mendoza, Lebanon has submitted a new draft of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that is based on the Philippines' MOU with Jordan. Alternatively, the Philippine embassy is hoping that the Lebanese labor minister will introduce to the Lebanese parliament a law that specifically protects migrant workers. The MOU and law on migrant workers’ protection are two conditions stipulated in Section 4 of Republic Act 10022, or the Amended Migrant Workers’ Act.
 
“Any one of those two conditions will enable us to review the current policy on deployment to Lebanon, but at the moment, as things stand, the ban stays,” stated Asuque.
 
The ban has been in place since June 18, 2007, after the war in Lebanon in 2006.
 
Recently, Lebanon entered into another period of conflict with the toppling of former prime minister Saad Hariri’s government and the appointment of Najib Mikati to the position. Asked how the current volatile political situation in Lebanon affects negotiations on the MOU, Asuque declined to comment, saying he submitted his analysis to the DFA.
 
The embassy does hope that potential OFWs would be warned against coming to work in Lebanon.
 
“I hope that through the arrival of the mass repatriation batches, prospective OFWs will pick up that they should defer coming here, because we are still working on agreements to protect them and improve their working conditions,” said Assistance to Nationals (ATN) Officer Edwin Batallones.
 
The ATN office is responsible for disbursing repatriation funds by dipping into a yearly budget provided by the DFA. According to Asuque, ATN funds paid the airfare for 405 of the 449 repatriates.
 
The embassy has also been able to seek the help of immigration authorities in waiving violation-of-contract costs incurred by runaway OFWs. These include, per person, about $3,000 in employer’s deployment cost and approximately $200 per year in penalties due to terminated work papers. Through close cooperative efforts between the embassy and General Security, the Philippine government ended up paying only the repatriates’ Beirut–Manila airfare.
 
The embassy hopes that, through talks with the DFA, Abi Nader and Malak can convey information that could help solve some of the challenges faced by OFWs in Lebanon. In the meantime, the DFA and the Department of Labor and Employment are reviewing the current MOU draft based on the Jordanian model. If the MOU is signed, said Mendoza, the lifting of the deployment ban to Lebanon may not be far off.