Repatriation of 167K stranded OFWs sought

THE chairman of the House committee on public accounts on Saturday urged the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to allow the repatriation of up to 167,000 stranded overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

“Our modern-day heroes have been stuck in their host countries since the coronavirus outbreak three months ago. They are now low on funds, if they still have money. They rely on aid from our government and their host countries for food. We should bring them home as soon as possible,” said Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Mike Defensor,  panel chairman.

Defensor said it is the consensus of his committee and leaders of the House led by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano to appeal to the IATF and the concerned agencies to lift restrictions on repatriation flights and to arrange for additional transportation for the stranded OFWs.

The committee and House leaders are making the appeal a day after they inquired into problems plaguing the return of displaced and distressed OFWs.

Defensor said they learned that the IATF and CAAP have imposed a cap of 1,000 on the number of OFWs and other overseas Filipinos who could be flown home when about 24,000 returnees got stranded in Metro Manila three weeks ago.

However, CAAP officials denied imposing a limit, claiming they were just following guidelines set by the IATF.

Now that the 24,000 have been transported to the provinces upon orders from President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte, it’s time for the IATF and the CAAP to scrap their repatriation limit to allow for more workers to finally fly home, Defensor said.

“We can give priority to OFWs who have purchased plane tickets on their own or with the help of their employers and our government.

There are thousands of them in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. They are not allowed to board commercial flights due to the IATF prohibition,” he said.

“With go-signal from the IATF and CAAP for their flights, these workers can already be home in days. Many airlines, including Emirates and Qatar, was willing to accept them. Since they will fly commercial, they will be home at no cost to the government,” he said.

Defensor pointed out that many OFWs complained during Friday’s hearing directly through videoconference or indirectly through social media posts that though they have their tickets, their flights are routinely cancelled “because concerned agencies here in our country would not clear them.”

“Many of them are already desperate. They have been jobless for more than three months now. They want to go home and be with their families. Let’s get them home,” he said.

He added the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) have blamed their inability to charter more repatriation flights on IATF’s daily cap of 1,000 workers.

Defensor urged the IATF, DFA and DOLE to consider the suggestion of Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Adnan Alonto for them to send Navy ships or hire cruise lines to transport stranded workers.

Alonto told the Defensor panel there are 88,000 OFWs in Saudi Arabia waiting to be repatriated. Some 3,500 to 4,000 workers in the UAE and the same number in Qatar await repatriation as well.

Defensor said aside from flying the workers home, the concerned agencies should attend to their testing for COVID-19, their accommodation in Metro Manila and their transportation to their provinces.

Eventually, the government should be able to provide them with job or other income-generating opportunities, he said.