DAMASCUS, Syria— For the first time in history, the Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC) Shelter in Syria was fully emptied out of all its wards on June 24 after the repatriation of the last group of survivors of human trafficking and illegal recruitment in line with an intense Philippine Embassy campaign.
This successful repatriation is the fulfilment of marching orders of Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. who, in his tweet on January 26, 2021, said that he would be sending a team to empty the shelters of all wards.
The 22 survivors of human trafficking and illegal recruitment from Syria arrived in the Philippines on June 26, 2021 after lengthy diplomatic negotiations with government officials of the Syrian Arab Republic and filing cases against illegal recruiters and human traffickers, under the leadership of Chargé d’Affaires Vida Soraya Verzosa, a human rights lawyer.
Verzosa thanked the Department of Foreign Affairs "and the strong bilateral cooperation with the government of the Syrian Arab Republic" for the feat.
"All these first-ever victories (the granting of exit visas by the Syrian Immigration Department, the Presidential pardon, the speedy approval of resources for the plane tickets, and the thorough legal assistance for the Filipinas so their police blotters would be cleared) would not be possible without all the support of SFA Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. and Usec. Sarah Lou Arriola of DFA-Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA),” said Verzosa.
Verzosa, upon her posting in Damascus in December 2020, has worked relentlessly with her team to clean up the shelter. There were 56 wards in the shelter at that time.
“Since the first day I arrived in Syria on 20 December 2020, the embassy has vowed to pursue strengthening the rule of law and achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions, consistent with our obligations under the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration," she said.
Verzosa requested in her meetings with Syrian government officials that a Presidential Pardon be granted to the Filipinas so they would no longer be liable for their pending cases. After negotiations, the processing of their exit visas was expedited.
“We, in the Philippine embassy, believe we are stronger when we work together, so we thank the government of the Syrian Arab Republic for the excellent partnership of the embassy with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and the Office of the Presidential Advisor,” she stated.
The wards tearfully expressed their gratitude to Verzosa and her team for all the help of DFA-OUMWA and the embassy in their repatriation to the Philippines. Some of them were in the shelter for nearly three years due to difficulties in securing their exit visas from the employers and recruitment agencies.
The repatriates were also continually assisted by the embassy in holding illegal recruiters in the Philippines, Malaysia, Dubai, and Syria accountable through the assistance of the Philippine Overseas and Employment Administration (POEA), Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), at the Blas F. Ople Policy Center.
These agencies helped them file and prosecute cases of illegal recruitment and trafficking in persons against the perpetrators. They were also given free legal assistance by volunteer lawyers and law students from the Ateneo de Naga University College of Law and the Ateneo Human Rights Center, who assisted them in preparing their complaint-affidavits and evidence packets against the syndicates. These were then compiled and notarized by the embassy.
The Honorary Philippine Consulate General in Aleppo, Syria lauded Verzosa and her team for the historic emptying of the FWRC.
“I have the great honor to witness for the first time since I became the honorary Consul to Aleppo that the Philippine embassy shelter is completely empty,” stated Honorary Philippine Consul General to Aleppo Wassim Nanaa.
This historic repatriation is part of the DFA's commitment, as an IACAT member agency, to arrest, investigate, and prosecute all human traffickers and illegal recruiters, combat the heinous crime of trafficking in persons, and assist trafficking survivors in granting opportunities for a new life and a new hope, upon their arrival in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, Verzosa reminded Filipinos of the existing deployment ban in Syria. She urged those seeking work abroad to go through the right process by checking first with the POEA if their agency is licensed to recruit workers.