MANILA - The Aquino administration has not allotted even a single centavo for legal assistance for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in distress in 2016, a party-list lawmaker claimed on Monday.
Citing budget documents, Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon noted the "conspicuous absence" of any particular item of appropriation for the Legal Assistance Fund (LAF).
The LAF was created by virtue of Republic Act No. 10022, or the amended Migrant Workers Act. Under this law, the government is mandated to provide P100 million every year for legal assistance for OFWs. Around P30 million should be sourced directly from the national budget.
“However, no such allocation can be found under the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] budget, nor is there a special provision that mentions the LAF,” Ridon said.
“The practical consequence of this move is that there is no separate budget for OFW legal assistance. Instead, OFWs need to beg Philippine embassies and consulates for help each time they need legal assistance,” he added.
“This is primarily the reason why OFWs like Mary Jane Veloso fall victim to human traffickers and abusers, and end up in the death row despite their innocence. How can our government provide legal protection for overseas Filipinos if it cannot allot even a single centavo for such service?” he asked.
However, the budget briefer submitted by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to the House Appropriations Committee said that as of June 30, 2015, the Legal Assistance Fund had a balance of P55,878,233.63 valid until December 31, 2016.
The original allotment is P100,051,893.79, of which P44,173,660.16 was obligated.
The LAF is used for legal expenses, DSA and airfare, retainer fee, translation service, filing fee among others.
The DFA also has an Assistance to Nationals Fund (ATN). As of June 30, 2015, it had a balance of P206,283,965.33 valid until December 31, 2016.
This pays for repatriation, basic necessities, medical expenses, immigration fees/overstay penalties, travel to visit OFW conduct consulate assistance/attend hearing, payment for translation services, medico legal, and authentication fees/visa financial assistance among other expenses.
From January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014 , 20,939 Filipinos overseas were provided with ATN assistance while 10,139 were assisted from January 1 to June 30, 2015. A total of P143.71 million of the P350 million budget for this in 2015 has been used.
From January 1 to June 30, 433 OFWs were recipients of the LAF. The DFA assisted 70 Filipinos with pending death penalty cases. Meanwhile, 18 former death penalty convicts were spared from execution.
The DFA pitched to lawmakers the approval of a P20.55 billion budget for 2016. Around P7.387 billion will go to new or expanded programs and projects.