Ople Center seeks congressional inquiry into rescue operations in Syria

The Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-profit organization that assists distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), called for a congressional inquiry into the state of rescue operations in Syria in light of the first Filipino fatality in battle-stricken Homs.

“We join the nation in mourning the tragic death of an OFW in Homs, Syria. Another hero has fallen, in a war that I’m sure she barely understood and was hardly prepared for,” Susan Ople, the head of the policy center, said.

Ople said that the tragic death of a Filipino domestic worker while fleeing Homs, Syria with her employer’s family underscores the need for the Aquino administration to give full priority and attention to the fast-developing humanitarian crisis in Syria. This would be the second case of an OFW who died in Syria. The first case involved a worker who was about to be repatriated from Damascus to Manila. She died due to renal failure while in a wheelchair waiting for immigration clearance.

“We respect and believe in the sincerity of our embassy and DFA personnel who are in the frontlines in Syria. It is also for their benefit that the Ople Center now seeks an impartial and independent assessment of the government’s ongoing rescue and repatriation efforts through a congressional inquiry,” Ople said.

A legislative inquiry will help ascertain whether all actions are fully coordinated, and that the best teams and all necessary resources are in place in Syria.

The OFW advocate recommended that a team composed of the most battle-tested labor and welfare attaches, social welfare attaches as well as consular officers be dispatched to Syria. The Ople Center also recommended that the Commission on Appointments take up the nomination of Ambassador-designate Nestor Padalhin so that he could immediately head the Philippine Embassy in Damascus.

She also recommended that the DFA and OWWA make full use of social media sites and broadcast stations to relay information to OFWs in Syria through their families here at home.

“Unlike Libya, our workers scattered across Syria do not know where the rescue teams are, and who are the community leaders or teams that they could reach out to. In quiet desperation, some of our workers have started planning their own escape routes which sadly puts them in extreme danger,” she added.

The policy center cited the case of OFWs Maricel Monteclaro and Sherly Antig who recently jumped from their building in order to escape from their employers in Lattakia. Both OFWs have been calling up the Philippine Embassy and asking for repatriation assistance because of oppressive work conditions and fear arising from sporadic sounds of gunfire near their building.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the employer of Maricel and Sherly is one of the wealthiest businessmen in Lattakia. Another OFW, Ruth Martinez, a co-worker of Maricel and Sherly, affirmed this information. Ruth Martinez came home on September 29, 2011 after an altercation with the said employer led to her repatriation.

“Our Syrian employer is very strict and also very powerful. He would promise the embassy and his domestic helpers that he would allow us to come home, but he doesn’t fulfill his promises,” Ruth said, adding that this may be the reason the two OFWs decided to escape.

Ople said she received an urgent text message from Maricel Monteclaro the other day saying that they jumped off the building and one of them was hurt. She requested the Ople Center to notify the Philippine Embassy about their situation. The former labor undersecretary was able to convey the information to OUMWA executive director Eric Endaya who is based in Damascus, Syria who in turn promised to send two embassy personnel to assist the two OFWs.

The Ople Center also called on the Philippine Embassy in Syria and the Department of Foreign Affairs to help Jacqueline Salas who has been seeking repatriation assistance since January. Jacqueline works as a domestic worker in Lattakia, Syria. She recently called her husband to reiterate her request for repatriation because of rising tensions and sporadic gunfire near her employer’s residence. Another OFW based in Damascus, Ivy Samson Escorpiso, has been seeking repatriation since December 15, 2011. According to the DFA, her case is still under negotiation.

The NGO noted that 6 other OFW cases seeking repatriation from Syria which was reported by the NGO during its first dialogue with the DFA on August 25, 2011 remains pending. “Once the employer confiscates the cellphone of the domestic worker, we lose track of where she is and how she is faring. Their mobile phones are lifelines that could be cut anytime by Syrian employers.”

The Ople Center said that the families of these OFWs are extremely worried and would often call up the NGO for updates. “All we could tell them is that the cases of their loved ones are still under negotiation based on information coming from the DFA. For how much and for how long, we have absolutely no idea. Then we ask them to keep praying and not lose hope. I really wish we could do more than that.”

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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