The political upheavals that have swept the Arab World have major implications fo the many countries with interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Philippines has several important interests in this region: ensuring free labor mobility across borders, the well-being of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), the security of oil and gas shipments and continued peaceful relations with Muslim countries.

The responses of the Philippine government to events in the region reflect these interests. An example of this occurred when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo decided to withdraw Philippine forces from Iraq — a decision to put the lives of its nationals working in the Middle East ahead of even its alliance commitments to the US and Australia.[1] As Professor Noel Morada of the University of the Philippines observed, the pullout “signaled the importance of giving priority to the safety and welfare of overseas Filipino workers in Iraq in defining the extent of support the Philippine government would give to the US in the fight against terrorism abroad.”[2]

Indeed, the Philippine government accords high priority to the protection of the Overseas Filipino Workers working in the Middle East and North African countries, especially those who are working in conflict areas. Although there have been efforts to strengthen bilateral labor relations between the Philippines and receiving countries, there is still considerable uncertainty about how the protection and well-being of Filipino workers far from home can be assured.

Uncertainties and instability often arise from the socio-political and economic conditions in Arab countries where a rigid, though fragile authoritarian system of governance produced not only enemies within the state but also socio-economic time bombs. Secondly, uncertainty about how to protect the welfare and well-being of Filipino workers is due to the limited capacity of the Philippine missions abroad to locate the whereabouts of Filipino workers in times of crisis, a condition that is attributable to the increasing number of undocumented workers in many MENA countries. There are very few diplomatic staff in Philippine Embassies in the region tasked with assisting the millions of workers. This limited capacity to assist is due to the relatively small budget allocated by the national government to provide legal assistance to Filipinos abroad.

The political crisis in Libya and, more recently, the conflict in Syria exposed the obstacles the government faced in its efforts to repatriate thousands of Filipinos residing and working in these countries. These situations also exposed the vulnerability of Filipino workers. They also revealed the dilemma faced by the Philippine government in trying to serve the interests of its citizens in engaging the authorities in these conflict-affected states while being pressured by the major powers to condemn these same governments for violating human rights. The decision made by the Philippine government to abstain from the June 1, 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) vote condemning Syria for human rights violations was considered by some to be a “shameful” act by a country where human rights are highly regarded. [3]

In explaining why the Philippines did not vote, the country’s Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario stated that decision was primarily based on the imperative to secure the “welfare of our people”, and that this was the Philippine government’s “primary concern.”[4] Del Rosario explained that, “as must be known to all, our nationals in Syria who are highly vulnerable are urgently being repatriated, and we are receiving assistance from the Syrian government in this effort. As a result, the Philippines was unable to vote for the said resolution.”[5] This “strategic silence” may not have been desirable but appears to have been effective as the Syrian government did allow the Philippines to repatriate its nationals safely.

Even before the repatriation, the Philippine government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, had activated an alert level system to determine the security conditions in Libya and Syria and to guide whether and when compulsory repatriation of OFWs would be triggered.[6]

In addition, a “Rapid Response Team (RRT)” was set up in the region to manage a speedy “extraction and repatriation” process.[7] This RRT was composed of Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) personnel. It remains in Syria and continues to assist in the repatriation of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) caught in this intractable conflict.[8]

According to Department of Foreign Affairs records, as of February 27,  2011 there were 30,000 Filipino workers in Libya. [9] Of this number, the Philippine government —aided by international bodies such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and companies employing Filipinos in Libya — succeeded in repatriating 10,000. [10] The large remaining number of Filipino workers either opted to stay in Libya — having been promised higher salaries — or elected to continue working abroad in countries other than Libya.[11]

As former Labor Undersecretary Susan Ople acknowledged, the repatriation of Filipino workers from that country was “harder compared to those that coming from Libya.”[12] There were several factors contributing to these difficulties. The first was the fact that in Syria, only around 800 Filipino workers out of an estimated 17,000 OFWs were documented or officially registered with the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration.[13] It was therefore very difficult for the staff of the Philippine mission in Damascus to locate the many undocumented Filipino workers. The mission staff had to rely mainly on information provided by families of the workers in the Philippines or from information provided by other Filipinos in with the undocumented workers through informal networks. Ninety-five percent of these Filipino workers were women and vulnerable to possible increased levels of abuse during the conflict.

Second, consular staff at the Philippine mission had to negotiate with the employers to secure the latter’s agreement to allow the workers leave the country.[14] To prevent the rapid repatriation of their Filipino workers, many Syrian employers increased the repatriation refund to $10,000 ― a sum exceeding the OFWs’ capacity to pay or the Philippine government’s to refund. This is in spite of the fact that the Syrian government waived certain fees for Filipinos who were to be repatriated. In brief,  increasing the repatriation refund significantly slowed the repatriation effort. 

Third, by the time the evacuation operation began, the civil conflict had already spread throughout the country. This made locating and gathering Filipino workers in a safe place such as the embassy not only difficult, but dangerous. The DFA reported that there were between 8,000 and 9,000 Filipino workers working in conflict-hit areas of Damascus, Homs, Daraa, Aleppo and Iblib at the time the crisis erupted.[15]

The fourth problem was the difficulty of obtaining exit visas for Filipinos in Syria. Given the large number of Filipino workers seeking evacuation, along with the chaotic conditions in Syria, immediate issuance of exit visas was often not possible. The Philippine embassy had to exert all its efforts to negotiate a “blanket waiver of mandatory departure documents for all Filipinos exiting Syria.”[16]

Finally, and unbelievably, despite continued efforts to repatriate Filipino workers from Syria, cases of Filipinos being sent to Syria from third countries continued to occur as a result of illegal recruitment either at home or in other countries. Philippine labor attaché to Syria, Angel Borja, observed that despite the ongoing repatriation of Filipinos from Syria, and Syrian Government Decision No. 500, which resolved to not issue visas to new Filipino workers, “an estimated 100 new OFWs who are victims of illegal recruitment and human trafficking still arrive in Syria every month.”[17]  A report provided by the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) states that about 80% of the 1,800 OFWs repatriated from Syria were victims of human trafficking, with most recruited from the provinces of Maguindanao, Basilan, and Sulu in the Southern Philippines.[18]

Conclusion

The repatriation of Overseas Filipino Workers in several prone-conflict countries in Middle East and North Africa has been one of the many difficult tasks that Philippine missions in those areas have had to carry out. Although coordination has improved a lot over the years on the practicalities of repatriation, the Philippine government continues to face several challenges. Often the government response continues to be criticized as merely reacting to a crisis when it has already emerged, rather than actively making contingency plans and preparations for when and if things turn bad. The reason for this may be that the Philippine government does not believe it can act alone or unilaterally in such situations. Domestic, regional and international factors all contribute to geopolitical uncertainties in Middle East and North Africa. With the multiplicity of actors involved in the recruitment process, and with compelling “push-and-pull” factors encouraging Filipinos to work abroad, the Philippine government has become progressively less able to control and manage challenges to the welfare and security of the OFWs working in crisis-prone countries.

The cases of mass evacuation and repatriation of Filipino workers from Libya and Syria constitute two very different repatriation scenarios. The Libyan evacuation was a coordinated action involving Philippine government missions, international non-governmental bodies such as the IOM and firms employing the Filipino workers. In contrast, the Syrian evacuation was far less organized, and carried out initially in a more ad hoc fashion resulting in greater uncertainties and dissatisfaction among the many Filipino citizens who required urgent assistance to escape. Philippine efforts in the Syrian case were also hampered by the fact that Syria was on the list of countries to which recruitment of Filipinos is discouraged. Those working there had invariably been illegally recruited and were often employed as undocumented, unprotected household maids. The less than satisfactory Philippines performance shows that there is a need for the government to continue to collaborate with recruiting agencies and host countries in ensuring compliance with regulations that provide maximum protection to Filipino workers. Even in cases where the strictest interpretation of the law is that Filipinos should not be working in a particular country, OFWs nonetheless deserve the best efforts of officials when they require emergency repatriation.


[1] See Foreign Secretary Delia Domingo Albert, ”Structure, Content, Form, and Substance of the Three Pillars of Philippine Foreign Policy,” speech at the Manila Overseas Press Club (MOPC) Regular Breakfast Forum, La Dolce Fortana Restaurant, August 12, 2004, . Cited in Noel Morada. “The Philippine Foreign Relations after September 11 (2001-2005),” in Noel Morada and Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem (eds.) Philippine Politics and Governance: An Introduction (Diliman: Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, 2006), p. 538.

[2] Noel Morada. “The Philippine Foreign Relations after September 11 (2001-2005),” in Noel Morada and Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem (eds.) Philippine Politics and Governance: An Introduction (Diliman: Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, 2006), p. 552.

[3] Rodel Rodis, “Shameful Philippine Vote on Syria,” Inquirer, July 3, 2012,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The four-level alert system is as follows: level 1 is a warning; level 2 is restricted movement phase; level 3 is voluntary repatriation; and level 4 triggers compulsory repatriation of OFWs, with all repatriation expenses paid by the Philippine government.

[7] “DFA intensifies repatriation efforts in Syria,” Philippine Information Agency, March 5, 2012, .

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Governments Double Efforts to Help OFWs in Libya,” Sun Star, February 27, 2011, .

[10] "Mandatory Evacuation of OFWs in Libya Ordered," OFW Guide, August 23, 2011, .

[11] Nicon Fameronag, “Global Neighbor: Libya Ban on OFWs,” Hong Kong News, October 30, 2012,  .

[12] Philip C. Tubeza, “Repatriation of OFWs Harder in Syria than in Libya,” Inquirer, August 23, 2012, .

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Michaela del Calla, “1,300 Read more Filipinos Want to Flee Strife-Torn Syria,” PTV News, August 25, 2012,

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Despite Employment Ban, 100 OFWs Still Enter Syria Every Month,” GMA News, July 16, 2012, .

[18] Ayan Mellejor and Judy Quiros,Rampant Trafficking of OFWs in Syria Uncovered, Inquirer, September 9, 2012, .