MANILA - Some 47,000 overseas Filipino workers are still "stuck" in the Middle East amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) awaits the disbursement of additional funds for their repatriation, officials said Thursday.
Most OFWs in the Middle East were hired under the kafala system, wherein they must first get the consent of their employers before returning to their home country, DFA Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola told senators in a budget hearing.
"Some of the employers want us to pay for the deployment cost because if we don't do that, we won't be able to bring them (OFWs) home," she said.
Other OFWs have debts to settle, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. added.
"Some of them have debts so they can't go out [of the country], but we try to pay it," he said.
The DFA officials did not say how much the government has spent to pay for the debts and the deployment costs of OFWs in the Middle East.
While the Senate earlier gave the DFA P820 million to assist Filipino repatriates during the pandemic, the agency is still waiting for the funds to be released, Arriola said.
So far, the Philippines has mounted 57 chartered flights for the repatriation of OFWs who were displaced after several industries were forced shut due to the pandemic.
Most of the OFWs who are going home are professionals, while domestic workers have higher chances of staying abroad, Locsin said.
"The jobs we are losing in the Middle East are the better ones because projects have ended," he said.
"But there is always need for our domestic workers in the Middle East. They are staying and they are very welcome," he said.
Foreign employers have assured Philippine diplomats that Filipino domestic helpers will be properly protected against COVID-19, the DFA chief said.
"They said, 'We will take care of them because they live with us. Of course, we don't want them to be infected'," he said.
Filipino healthcare workers abroad are also getting good pay and benefits as they "are most valued for their professionalism," Locsin said.
The national government has yet to finalize how many Filipino health workers would be allowed to work abroad during the pandemic when the Philippines, the epicenter of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, is in need of more medical workers, Locsin said.
"There is a tug of war going on on how many should be allowed to go, but it is their constitutional right to travel and work where they can find the best terms," said Locsin, who is opposed to the overseas deployment ban of Filipino health workers imposed since April.
As of Oct. 4, the DFA said it has brought home a total of 204,481 overseas Filipinos from all over the world. A total of 69,477 (33.98%) sea-based, while 135,004 (66.02%) are land-based.
Of the total, 31,217 or 74.5% are from the Middle East, the DFA said.