President Rodrigo Duterte warned local government officials he would order the filing of criminal charges against those who would refuse to accept overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) returning to their respective provinces after being cleared of COVID-19 by the Health Department following a 14-day mandatory quarantine.
Duterte issued the warning on a televised public address late Monday night, after receiving reports that some local government units (LGUs) refuse to take in returning OFWs for fear that they might be carrying COVID-19.
Duterte called on all local officials to accept OFWs returning to their homes, saying that only the national government could impose travel restrictions.
READ: 300k jobless OFWs returning
“I’m ordering you to accept them, open the gates of your territories and allow the people—and allow the Filipino to travel wherever they want,” Duterte said.
The President insisted that once they are cleared by the medical authorities and given certification, the OFWs can return home.
“It is the constitutional right of people to go home—to travel and go home. Do not impede it. Do not obstruct the movement of people because you run the risk of getting sued criminally,” he said.
He said the national government’s power to restrict travel due to a national emergency cannot be shared with the local government.
“I said nobody but nobody. And only the national government can impose restrictions on travels because it is the only agency who can declare that there is an emergency of national interest. The issue is national interest. And that power to—of declaration is not shared by anybody. It’s the national government,” he said.
He warned the LGUs refusing to accept OFWs saying, “Listen, you local executives—the national government will insist that you accept the OFWs.”
While he acknowledged that local officials were only protecting their other constituents from possible infection, he said it was cruel to prevent workers from returning home.
READ: Lockdown takes emotional toll on overseas workers
The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) on Tuesday issued a similar warning.
In a Laging Handa briefing, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año warned LGUs that rejecting OFWs is a violation of the Bayanihan To Heal as One Act.
"I myself will make sure I will go after you. I am warning you, stop that," Año said.
This came after reports of some LGUs that either impose unnecessary regulations or blatantly refuse to accept OFWs that already have the necessary certificates and documents proving that they are negative of COVID-19.
But the Palace also said it respects the decision of local government units to require returning workers to undergo another round of quarantine, even if they have tested negative for COVID-19.
“That’s the decision of the LGUs,” said presidential spokesman Harry Roque. “They tested negative on PCR testing, so the quarantine might be a waste of time, but we respect your prerogatives.”
READ: Local Roundup: Save OFWs
He suggested that the quarantine areas should be in barangays where the OFWs can be close to their families.
Duterte and Ano had both said that if LGUs insisted on re-testing arriving OFWs, they should ask for permission from the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases first.
Roque’s statement came after the League of Provinces of the Philippines on Tuesday insisted on having repatriated OFWs undergo quarantine and COVID-19 test upon their arrival in their home provinces.
LPP president and Marinduque Governor Presbitero Velasco appealed for understanding, saying the measure was meant to prevent the spread of the deadly virus in their communities.
Año, however, said OFWs returning to their home provinces are safe and free from COVID-19.
Interviewed on Dobol B sa News TV, Año said the national government has already advised concerned agencies regarding the matter.
On Monday, Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez lamented the supposed lack of proper coordination on the return of OFWs stranded due to the strict quarantine.
READ: Quarantine for arriving 42k OFWs worries government
Gomez said local government officials were expecting proper notice on the return of the workers.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the government should scale up quarantine facilities to cut the huge backlog of OFWs for repatriation.
With their robust remittances of P1.7 trillion last year, he said overseas Filipinos who are homeward bound have earned the right to be treated “as returning heroes who have sacrificed so much for their country.
“They deserve a red carpet welcome. Those who have brought progress to this country should not be shunned as carriers of a disease. To view them as such is fake news most foul,” Recto said.
He said OFWs should be quarantined in comfortable lodgings and, after completing the two-week forced self-isolation, must be reunited with their loved ones without delay.
“They should not be stranded in their own land,” Recto said.
For this to happen, Recto said the government should scale up quarantine facilities so that more OFWs will be given the green light to return home.
The backlog of Filipinos who want to go home after being rendered jobless by the economic slowdown triggered by COVID-19 is getting bigger, in part due to the closure of Philippine airports to international flights.
“If that is the case, then let us study the option of opening more airports to chartered flights from abroad, in cities where struggling hotels can earn money for hosting OFWs who have been tested as coronavirus-free,” Recto said.
As they reintegrate, OFWs should be seen as “remitters of money and not as bearers of a disease,” Recto said.
Last year, Filipinos abroad sent home P1.7 trillion, Recto said.
“That’s P193 million every hour, P4.6 billion per day. That should be seen as the repatriation insurance they’ve been paying.”
“Twenty-five percent of the remittances came from sea-based Filipinos, which entitles those working aboard cruise ships a seamless trip home,” Recto said.
READ: OFW remittances may decline by 6.9% — ING
A recent DFA report to the Senate said 33,516 Filipino crew of at least eight cruise lines are awaiting repatriation. “But the figure is higher from this sector alone.”
Including land-based workers, the government is bracing for the return of 300,000 Filipinos, victims of the global economic slowdown.
Recto said remittances of OFWs in one country are bigger than gross sales posted by Filipino conglomerates.
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