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Tension in Gulf triggers fears for OFWs

THE worsening row between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran has triggered fears for the safety of Filipino workers in the Middle East but the Palace said it was monitoring the situation closely.

“We are worried and preoccupied with the tense and threatening situation between KSA and Iran,” said Balanga Bishop Ruperto Santos, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People at the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

“We pray for peace there. We hope for stability and security in the Middle East, and security of our [workers] in those countries,” Santos said.

Santos’ statement came after Saudi Arabia announced that it will reduce its reliance on migrant workers by recruiting only highly technical workers and monitoring investments, a move that would affect more than one million Filipinos who live and work in the kingdom.

Still Gulf-bound. Filipino workers still leave for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for work by the hundreds each day at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Eric Apolonio
The plan comes amid the continuing drop in the prices of oil, the main source of income and livelihood for Saudi Arabia, and the growing tension between the Saudis and the Iranians, after the Saudis executed an influential Shiite cleric who was critical of the royal family.

Shortly after the execution, Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran was ransacked. In response, Saudi Arabia immediately cut its diplomatic ties with Iran.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are major rivals for power in the Middle East and back opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

President Benigno Aquino III ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs to closely monitor the situation and to put contingency measures in place.

“Measures are being updated, fleshed out and finalized by concerned agencies,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said. “Government’s top priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of Filipinos.”

Senatorial candidate Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez said the contingency plans should include alternative livelihood for an estimated 2.2-million Filipinos working in the Middle East, in case the situation worsens.

Romualdez said the Foreign Affairs and Labor departments should move ahead in planning the safety and alternative livelihood of OFWs should the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalate.

He said the successful repatriation of workers from Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq could be used as a template to ensure the safety of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“We need to plan ahead and effect the swift and free mass repatriation of OFWs in Saudi Arabia and Iran. We don’t want to be sound alarmist, but we should work on ensuring their safety,” Romualdez said.

“The government has a template for repatriation that it used in war-torn countries before. The Department of Labor and Employment should also map out plans on possible alternative sources of income for OFWs who might be affected,” he added.

Data from the Foreign Affairs Department shows that there are some 800,000 Filipinos working in Saudi Arabia and 4,000 in Iran. There are about 2.2-million Filipinos working in the entire Middle East.

The department said  Wednesday  the government is prepared to respond to any eventuality arising from the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but said there was no plan to raise the alert level in Saudi Arabia or impose a ban on the further deployment of workers there.

“There was no indication of danger for Filipinos based in Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, our embassies and consulates are ready to extend assistance to the OFWs and will use the government resources to ensure their safety,” said department spokesman Charles Jose.

He advised Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia and Iran to take precautionary measures, such as avoiding crowded areas where a terror attack might take place.

John Leonard Monterona, coordinator of Migrante-Middle East, said there have so far been no huge demonstrations that might undermine the peace and order situation in Saudi Arabia.

But he said the government should keep an eye on the Saudi-Iran rift and consider readying its evacuation and emergency plans to secure the safety of Filipinos in the region.

The Department of Labor and Employment, on the other hand, said the new Saudi policy would affect only “a minimal number” of Filipino workers.

The announcement, made by Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf, came amid the continuing drop in the prices of oil, the main source of income for Saud Arabia.

Labor Secretary Rosalida Baldoz said the policy would not affect most Filipinos who are the mostly highly skilled.

Baldoz added that the reason Saudi Arabia opted for the nationalization of its workforce was to avoid social unrest now being experienced by some Middle East countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. With Vito Barcelo

Topics: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia , Iran , Middle East , OFWs
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