MANILA demanded an explanation Thursday after its ambassador to Kuwait was expelled, shocking Philippine authorities and deepening a diplomatic row over the treatment of domestic workers in the Gulf state.
The two nations had been working to resolve differences sparked by the murder of a Filipino maid, whose body was found stuffed in her employer’s freezer in Kuwait earlier this year.
But relations plunged after videos emerged last week of Philippine Embassy staff helping Filipino workers flee from allegedly abusive employers, which Kuwait called a violation of its sovereignty.
Kuwaiti officials announced Wednesday they were expelling the Philippine Ambassador Renato Villa and recalling their own envoy from Manila.
“President [Rodrigo Duterte] and everyone else was shocked at this development because the President’s meeting with the Kuwaiti ambassador went well,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said.
A foreign ministry statement said the expulsion was “deeply disturbing” and it will ask for an explanation.
Tensions rose earlier this year following the murder of maid Joanna Demafelis, prompting President Duterte to ban Filipino workers from deploying to Kuwait for work.
Duterte had alleged that Arab employers routinely rape their Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.
Relations appeared to recover after a Kuwaiti court sentenced to death in absentia a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife for Demafelis’s killing.
Following the verdict, Duterte this month announced plans to visit Kuwait to seal an agreement on workplace safety guarantees for the 252,000 Filipinos already working there.
The proposed deal would have set terms for vacation leaves, food and custody of passports, Duterte’s spokesman Roque said, adding that the visit timing was now in doubt.
Some 10-million Filipinos work abroad and the money they remit back is a lifeline of the Philippine economy.
In a diplomatic note delivered to the Kuwait Embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs conveyed its “strong surprise and great displeasure” over the declaration of Villa as persona non-grata, the continued detention of four Filipino employees of the Philippine Embassy, and the arrest warrants against three diplomatic personnel.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs has summoned Kuwaiti Ambassador Musaed Saleh Ahmad Althwaikh but was informed by the Embassy of the State of Kuwait in Manila that he has been recalled to his capital for consultations,” the DFA said in a statement last Thursday afternoon.
The DFA said these acts by the Kuwait government were “inconsistent with the assurances and representations” made by the Kuwaiti ambassador during a meeting with Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on April 24.
The DFA said that Althwaikh assured Cayetano that Villa could stay in Kuwait unti the end of his tour of duty.
The DFA also said that Althwaikh made a commitment at least eight measures that will immediately respond to the urgent requests by Filipino nationals who were residing and working in Kuwait, including improving the Kuwaiti government’s hotline to immediately respond to urgent requests for assistance by Filipino nationals in coordination with the Philippine embassy.
Cayetano and Villa had apologized to the Kuwaiti government over rescue operations that embassy staff had run in Kuwait without the participation of the local authorities.
In a report by the Kuwait News Agency, the foreign ministry reiterated ts “utter rejection and condemnation of the Philippine embassy flagrant and grave breach of rules and regulations that govern diplomatic action, where staff helped Filipina house helpers to run away.”
The ministry said Villa and the embassy staff violated Kuwaiti laws and international covenants and charters, and their actions were “tantamount to intervention in the state’s domestic affairs and meddling in jurisdictions of the security apparatuses.”
The Kuwait Foreign Ministry said it will continue to track down those who participated in the rescue operations.
A party-list lawmaker on Thursday demanded that Kuwaiti Ambassador Musaed Saleh Ahmad Althwaikh be kicked out “in equivalent retaliation” for the expulsion of Villa.
ACTS-OFW Rep. Aniceto Bertiz III said he will file a House resolution declaring the Kuwaiti diplomat persona non grata.
“Once we obtain plenary approval of the resolution, we will send it to our Bureau of Immigration for enforcement,” Bertiz said.
“The Kuwait ambassador has been recalled by his government for consultation anyway. We might as well forbid him from coming back,” Bertiz added.
Bertiz said Kuwait should not have expelled Villa, considering that the Department of Foreign Affairs had already apologized for the misunderstanding caused by the Philippine Embassy’s highly aggressive efforts to safeguard our workers there.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said the deteriorating relations exposed Filipino workers to greater risks and revealed the Duterte administration’s “haphazard and amateurish approach to foreign policy.”
“Rescuing our abused OFWs is correct. What is patently wrong is to exploit the rescue of our distressed kababayan [countrymen] to score propaganda points even if it means trampling on the sovereignty of a nation-state and straining long-nurtured bilateral relations,” Hontiveros said.
Senator Loren Legarda, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said the decision of the Kuwaiti government to expel Villa was unfortunate, especially since there had already been recent talks to move the Philippine-Kuwait relations forward.
She said it is also important to underscore that the protection of overseas Filipinos constitutes one of the pillars of the country’s foreign policy.
“We cannot just play lip service in catering to the needs of our overseas Filipinos. In saying this, it is important that channels of dialogue are kept open,” Legarda said. With Maricel V. Cruz, Macon Ramos-Araneta, Vito Barcelo and AFP