The Department of Foreign Affairs has raised “Crisis Alert Level 4” over Iraq, paving the way for the mandatory repatriation of some 4,000 Filipinos working there.
The alert, the highest among the DFA travel advisories, was issued after a US drone attack killed a top Iranian general in Iraq on Jan. 3, prompting Wednesday’s Iranian missile attack on Iraq’s al Asad Airbase in Iraq, which houses American troops.
“President Rodrigo Duterte has directed all government agencies, including the Philippine Embassy in Iraq, for repatriation of Filipinos from here,” Philippine Chargè d’ Affairès Jomar Sadie said in Filipino over a Facebook Live video.
“The marching order for us is mandatory repatriation,” Sadie added.
The DFA also elevated the alert level in Yemen to Alert Level 4.
The DFA said there are at least 1,600 Filipinos in Iraq, more than half working in Kurdistan region and the rest in the Baghdad area.
In Baghdad, many are employed by the US and other foreign facilities, while some work for regular commercial establishments.
Under Alert Level 4, all Filipinos are asked to leave and join the ongoing evacuation being offered by the Philippine government.
READ: M.E. strikes spark call for evac
Sadie stressed that overseas Filipino workers in Iraq should coordinate closely with the embassy for repatriation and other forms of assistance needed.
He said an exit visa and ticket should be secured from the workers’ employers.
He also advised Filipinos in Iraq to have their passports with them at all times.
Sadie also advised undocumented Filipinos in Iraq, including the victims of human trafficking, to coordinate directly with or call the Philippine Embassy so that appropriate travel documents can be issued to them by the embassy.
In case of employers’ refusal to let Filipino workers go home, they may also ask for assistance from the embassy.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo admitted that it is impossible to impose mandatory repatriation, especially when the fighting begins.
“If there are open hostilities, repatriation is out of the question especially if there’s a shooting war. Our primary concern is to evacuate them into a safe place,” Panelo said in an interview with CNN Philippines.
“With respect to those who do not want to, how can we urge them if they do not want to? We cannot forcibly drag them to a ship or to whatever to bring them out,” Panelo added.
Meanwhile, Budget Assistant Secretary Rolando Toledo said P1.9 billion is available to repatriate Filipinos.
The fund is composed of P1.29 billion from the Department of Foreign Affairs, P100 million from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration 2020 budget, and P500 million from the OWWA Fund.
Toledo said the Philippine government can also access its P13-billion contingent fund if the budget would be insufficient.
President Duterte earlier requested a “standby fund” that could be used to evacuate 1.2-million Filipinos from the Middle East.
“Even without the pronouncement of the President, we already have the budget for repatriation,” Toledo told Palace reporters in a press briefing.
Special envoy to Middle East Roy Cimatu is flying to the Middle East to help in the mandatory evacuation of thousands of Filipino workers and migrants.
He said Filipinos from Iraq would be airlifted or be brought by land to Jordan or Dubai in going to Qatar or back to the Philippines.
He said there are US bases in Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain that could be possible targets of attacks by Iran.
“Being possible targets, we must be prepared for any eventualities,” he said.
At least 1,592 Filipino workers in Iraq have signed up for repatriation.
Cimatu said Filipino workers in Iraq must proceed to the Philippine Embassy, where they would be fetched for repatriation.
The affected Filipinos would be taken to airports in Qatar, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, he said.
“That will be my concern tomorrow (Thursday) to see if airports are okay,” he added.
The military has formed two battalions of elite personnel and is on standby alert for deployment in the Middle East to assist in the repatriation of some 7,000 Filipinos in Iraq and Iran in case a shooting war erupts in the volatile region.
READ: New attacks trigger fears of US-Iran proxy war
Security officials led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., said a battalion of Philippine Marines and one battalion from the Army’s Special Operations Command (Socom) will be sent to Jeddah and Qatar to rescue Filipino workers who might be trapped.
The decision to deploy military contingents in the Middle East was based on the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte during Tuesday night’s command conference in Malacañang.
“The purpose of the military there, based on the President’s directive, is for us to prepare two battalions, not for war but to assist whatever the Department of Foreign Affairs needs,” Santos said.
“We have to place our forces there on strategic places so it could be nearer. We have some recommended places, countries for, as staging point just in case (the situation) worsen,” Santos said.
A Navy landing dock ship (LD-602) BRP Davao del Sur with a capacity of 500 persons, will also be sent to the Persian Gulf to ferry out stranded Filipino workers.
The government is also formulating other contingency plans for the Middle East crisis including the deployment of two C-130 cargo planes and a smaller cargo aircraft C-295 that can carry around 300 passengers.
Lorenzana said the government may also lease commercial planes and ships to accommodate the thousands of Filipinos that have to be repatriated.
There are about 1.2 million Filipinos in the Middle East—1,600 of them are in Iran while 6,000 are in Iraq.
He said a newly-acquired French-made BRP Gabriela Silang which is set to receive by the Philippine government could also be used to ferry workers out of the Middle East.
The Labor department said has set aside an initial P600 million for the immediate repatriation and assistance to overseas Filipino workers who will be brought home from the crisis-stricken Middle East.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III also said Wednesday that alternative overseas and local employment are being readied for affected workers.
The government’s emergency repatriation fund lodged in the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration amounting to P65 million should be tapped to finance the mandatory evacuation of Filipino workers and migrants, Senator Joel Villanueva said Wednesday.
Villanueva, chairman of the Senate committee on labor, employment, and human resources development, said the fund, which was included in the 2020 General Appropriations Act that President Duterte signed earlier this week, would be enough to jump-start the government’s order to Filipino workers to leave Iraq.
He urged OFWs to ensure their important documents such as passports and travel documents, and employment contracts, among kept safe and ready.
The DFA on Wednesday advised Filipinos in Saudi Arabia to be vigilant.
“In view of recent developments in the region, Filipino communities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are advised to be vigilant against potential security threats, observe security measures and protocols established by the Saudi government, and abide by the laws, rules, and regulations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the DFA said, in an advisory.
The Philippine Embassy in Riyadh also advised Filipinos that it is ready for the repatriation of Filipinos that may be affected or displaced by the situation in the Middle East.
READ: Letter on US pullout from Iraq a ‘mistake’
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