Embassy feud over evacuation funds
Where we are: Philippine Ambassador to Beirut Al Francis Bichara complained to the media that the evacuation of OFWs will have to stop due to lack of funds coming from OWWA and the home office. This has become a running story with the Senate weighing in to probe the entire incident on Monday. OWWA has issued a statement saying that it has been spending money to charter flights and pay the commercial airfares of returning OFWs. It also contributed to the maintenance and operations of the relocation site in Beirut and temporary shelter in Damascus, Syria. The DFA, on the other hand, chastised the neophyte ambassador for going to the media first, before even contacting the department for assistance.
Where we are headed: As the war enters its third week, the Israeli Defense Army has yet to make inroads in pushing Hezbollah guerillas farther away from the border. Its top commanders predict that this conflict may take many weeks. Meanwhile, thousands of Filipinos are entrapped in Lebanon. Please note that (1) not all bombs are laser-guided in light of the number of residential buildings leveled to the ground in South Lebanon; note that even a UN outpost was hit, killing four UN unarmed observers and, (2) a prolonged war is not only about bombs but also about cutting off supplies such as food, electricity, water, and other basic needs in order to pressure a government and its people to capitulate to the demands of the aggressor.
What can be done:
1) For the DFA in consultation with DOLE to immediately assess whether a country-team approach as mandated under the Migrant Workers’ Act in 2006 is still possible. This approach means the ambassador heads the diplomatic team and is responsible for its members including attaches assigned by other departments, such as DOLE. In practical terms, this means that in Beirut, for example, Ambassador Bichara has the sole mandate of leading the diplomatic officers under his wing. Can he still do so considering how his own department disagree with how he is handling his post?
2) If the feud is real and stands in the way of quicker and more effective action on behalf of the OFWs, then the ambassador can be re-assigned or recalled, and an experienced career official, preferably with a working knowledge of Lebanon and the Middle East, be tasked to take over. Such steps were taken before, in crises of lesser gravity than the ongoing Lebanon war.
3) Top level DFA-DOLE/OWWA coordination must be onstream, with both sides meeting daily, to remove red tape and provide strategic direction to the people on the ground.
4) Utilize our military attaches to help out in mapping strategies that would include a search and rescue mission for OFWs held hostage by their employers.
Note: The embassy feud over the delay in funding support is a huge embarrassment that denigrates our country’s image as a global nation that cares for its overseas workers. The feud must end now. I also disagree with the idea of a Senate probe particularly when everyone’s attention must be focused on helping our workers. However, since there may be no other way for the public to get sufficient assurance that the whole situation is truly under control, then a quick assessment, rather than a probe, by a third party or an independent institution, may be in order.
The safety of our workers must be the paramount concern of everyone. As I’ve said before, this is an opportunity for all of us to unite in support of government initiatives to help our distressed compatriots. Let me add, however, that for this to take place, government must get its act together. If the incumbent ambassador, who has no prior experience as a diplomat, seems to be no longer effective, then get him out of there. If there are bureaucratic impediments to releasing necessary funds, then fix it. To argue about this in public, is a waste of time, energies and opportunities, when so many OFWs are waiting to be served by the government that they help pay for.