Out of Harm’s Way

(This is what will appear in my Panorama column tomorrow.)

I write this at home, with a heavy heart. Reasonable voices calling for an immediate ceasefire are being drowned out by bomb blasts, the ultimate rhetoric of an ugly war. Caught in between the rockets of Israel and missiles of Hezbollah are more than thirty thousand Filipinos, mostly women, hiding out in the households that they clean and look after, while waiting and praying for peace to come. At least a thousand or more of them have been able to come home, through the joint efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and its attached agency, the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA). Ironically, these offices are now also attack, here at home, due to fiscal matters.

For if ever there was a time for our country to realize how poor and vulnerable it was, this may be it. We remember the early days of this war when our television screens were filled with images of foreigners lining up to board magnificent ships that went through military blockades to ferry these people home. I recall how some Australians complained to the network about inordinate delays while standing a few feet away from a docked cruise ship that was to take them home.

The stark contrast between rich and poor countries could not be made clearer against this backdrop of war. For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) website had this to say about the evacuation plan of the United Kingdom:
“The government is not revealing many details for security reasons, but it has confirmed that at least five warships – HMS York, HMS Gloucester, HMS Bulwark, HMS Illustrious, HMS St Albans – plus RFA support vessel Fort Victoria are in the area.”
“RAF Chinook helicopters are being used to ferry evacuees onto HMS Illustrious and also directly to British bases in Cyprus. They will continue to operate where conditions allow, and more Chinooks, Sea Kings and other RAF helicopters are on their way to the area.”

We don’t have Chinooks or warships that can sail that far, but our government has been doing its best to cope with this abrupt war, which is bound to escalate unless the full weight of the United Nations and the international community including the United States bears down on the parties in conflict.

One senses a palpable rhythm in the constant stream of workers that come home in flights, chartered and commercial. Some of these workers literally jumped from apartment buildings to escape not just the war, but also their abusive employers. Tales of woe are packed deep within the souls of these workers, an emotional baggage that no physical repatriation can ever hope to solve.

Right now, the best option for all of us is to support the government in its mission to get our workers out of harm’s way. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and Labor Secretary Art Brion are now co-chairs of a task force on repatriation of OFWs from Lebanon, a task force headed by Vice-President Noli de Castro. OWWA Administrator Marianito Roque, a good man and responsible career official, must soldier on despite the criticisms hurled his way.

I know that we have good people working for our OFWS’s safety in the field. One of them is the reliable Rafael Seguis, the undersecretary who stayed in Iraq the longest, until that blessed day when Robert Tarongoy came home. In Israel, we have former journalist and now ambassador Tony Modena, tasked with coordinating our workers’ movements with the Israeli government. Welfare officer Resty dela Fuente, who I know from way back, is in Lebanon to help with the evacuation efforts. Special Envoy Roy Cimatu received special orders direct from the President herself to secure our workers. I hope that Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Al Francis Bichara, Special Envoy Cimatu and senior diplomat Eric Endaya are working on this mission as a team.

This war, not of our making, has repercussions on the lives of so many Filipino families. Already, our government must focus its energies not only in getting our OFWs in Lebanon out of harm’s way but in preparing for the eventuality that this war may spread, engulfing the Middle East where more than a million Filipinos stay, in the throes of a regional war.

Because our main exports have become our people, not products, we are more vulnerable than most countries to conflicts of this nature. The Lebanon crisis, flashed live on TV, and made real by the phone calls received by families from their loved ones in Beirut, is an emotional journey for Filipinos as well. Let us support the path to peace, as proposed by the United Nations, stridently and with vigor. Now is not a good time to quibble over who got which funds. Now is the time to get as many Filipino workers out of Lebanon as we can, to keep them out of harm’s way.

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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