BY SAMMY JULIAN
Manila News Bureau Chief
MANILA – The ship hired by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to evacuate Filipinos from the troubled country of Libya will only make one run this week due to the breakdown of peace and order, widespread lawlessness and lack of effective government in that North African country.
According to DFA spokesperson Charles Jose, the ship should be in Libya either by Thursday or Friday with a return trip to Malta possibly by Sunday.
“It takes about 24 hours to negotiate the 333-kilometer distance between Malta and Libya,” said Jose.
Benghazi and Misrata will be the “extraction points” for Filipino repatriates who want to join the trip of the chartered vessel.
DFA decided to hire a ship to ferry Filipinos out of harm’s way in Libya after the border with Tunisia was closed, leaving the sea as the only way out.
Initially, commercial flights were used to repatriate the Filipinos to the Philippines. Now, Jose disclosed, DFA is talking with Philippine Airlines for a possible chartered plane as it has yet to determine how the Filipinos will be repatriated from Malta to Manila.
“We’ll see if there are many Filipinos who will join the trip of the ship which can accommodate up to 350 passengers,” he said. “We’re talking of only one run so everything will depend on how many will register for this trip.”
Jose said they have not yet received the latest information on the exact number of additional Filipinos who have expressed willingness to be repatriated.
Before Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario flew to the island of Djerba last week to personally supervise the repatriation efforts of the Philippine government, 200 Filipinos have already registered with the Philippine Embassy in Tripoli and are now waiting for repatriation.
Before the start of the crisis, there were an estimated 13,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Libya.
So far, Jose said around 900 Filipinos have been repatriated with an additional 200 Filipinos now waiting for their flights back home.
“That’s a little over 1,000, so we still have to repatriate 11,000 more OFWs,” he said.
Regarding the reasons why a substantial number of Filipinos still refuse to be repatriated, Jose stated that they can only make conjectures.
“What we have heard from the Filipinos in Libya is that they would rather take the chance,” he said. “They think they have a greater chance of surviving a new war than surviving the uncertainty, without any work here.”
Filipino medical workers, on the other hand, are “pressured” by hospitals to remain in Libya.
Jose said 60 percent of medical staff in Libya come from the Philippines. If the Filipinos leave, all the hospitals and medical services will be paralyzed.
“So they are asking Filipino medical workers to stay,” he said. “However, kung tayo lang ang masusunod, we would like every single Filipino to be out there.”
“Sadly, even if we impose mandatory repatriation I think it’s still their (OFWs) decision whether or not they would like to come back or stay behind,” Jose added.
Although, this is the last warning, Jose gave his assurance that the call for Filipinos to respond and avail themselves of the repatriation program being offered by the Philippine government will continue. “We’ll find ways to get them out of harm’s way as long as someone wants to leave.”
After the non-essential and female staff of the Philippine Embassy in Tripoli were transferred to Tunisia, Jose said the DFA will probably dispatch personnel from nearby posts.
The ones who remain at the embassy are the male members of the rapid response team, he said.
DFA’s media campaign will also continue so that Filipinos in Libya will be advised about the seriousness of the situation and take up the offer of repatriation.
In reaction to criticisms that the DFA failed to act swiftly to protect Filipinos in Libya, Jose said at the first sign of the unrest last May, Secretary del Rosario went to the that country to personally assess situation.
“Immediately we raised alert 3 or voluntary repatriation and that was more than two months ago,” he pointed out. “So far only 600 to 700 Filipinos have availed themselves of the repatriation program.”
In fact, when it raised alert level 3 many people criticized the DFA for over reacting.
“OFWs claim that nothing is happening there and that they are safe,” he said. “They were the same people who requested that we lift the deployment ban because many people are affected.”
“We believe that the DFA has taken a proactive step in warning our OFWs there of the imminent threat,” added Jose. “And since then all possible escape routes were still available including international airports and land border exists.”
Meantime, Jose stressed that although DFA’s mandate is to look after the welfare of OFWs and ensure their protection and safety, the department is also sensitive to their other demands
He noted that after the situation in Libya stabilized in 2011 following the fall of Moammar Ghaddafi, the OFWs issued numerous demands including for the DFA to allow them to return to Libya to work.
“They said there were many of them who were on vacation when the ban was raised. They were asking the DFA if they could go back,” he added. “They were asking the DFA if they could be exempted from the ban.”
In response to their demands, Jose said the deployment ban was slowly lifted.
In 2011, there were about 18,000 OFWs in Libya. Because of the repatriation, only 4,500 remained. When the deployment ban was lifted, the number of Filipinos doubled to 9,000 plus another 4,000 new hires.
“I want to emphasize that we have taken a proactive step in looking after the welfare of our OFWs,” Jose declared. “We were only responding to the OFWs’ demands. They were the ones who wanted to return but we cannot blame them because that is the source of their livelihood.”
DFA is now talking with the Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) to allow OFWs in Libya to bring home local currency so that they can convert it to Philippines peso./PN