BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and VICTOR REYES
PRESIDENT Duterte is sending Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to the Middle East to establish coordination with countries hosting Filipino workers and to lay the groundwork for their possible evacuation amid escalating tension between the United States and Iran.
Duterte issued the order on Monday night during a Cabinet meeting, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said yesterday.
Cimatu, a former chief of the Armed Forces, served as special envoy to the Middle East under the Arroyo administration after his retirement. In 2004 as a special envoy, he secured the release of a Filipino truck driver kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents.
Cimatu, in a media he conference yesterday, said he recommended to the President a mandatory evacuation of Filipinos from Iraq, the raising of the alert level in Iraq from 3 (repatriation is voluntary) to 4 which means mandatory evacuation.
Cimatu said Filipinos should be moved out of Iraq immediately because it is a potential target due to the presence of some US facilities in Baghdad.
Asked how the President reacted, he said Duterte allowed him to decide.
Cimatu said he plans to fly to Qatar within 48 hours.
He also said that he plans to evacuate Filipinos to Saudi Arabia using a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that is now in Malta.
He said there would be separate evacuation plans for every country in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government is considering the chartering cruise ships for the repatriation Filipinos from Iraq and Iran.
Lorenzana has been designated by President Duterte as chairman of a committee that will study how to evacuate the Filipinos in those areas.
Lorenzana said the military has prepared aircraft and ships to fetch the Filipinos. However, these assets are needed in addressing internal and external security threats.
“We should not be thrifty to ensure the safety of our people. One of the suggestions that came out last night (Cabinet meeting Monday night) was if there are many who want to go home, let’s hire cruise ships,” he said.
About 2.3 million Filipinos are working in the Middle East as domestic helpers, construction workers, engineers, and nurses. There are about 6,000 Filipinos in Iraq and 1,100 Filipinos in Iran who are mostly married to Iranians.
Lorenzana said the foreign affairs department is coordinating with the Philippine embassy in Baghdad to determine who wants to come home.
“Cruise ships are big and can accommodate about 3,500 to 4,000 people … Two cruise ships would do provided these Filipinos would like to come home,” he said.
Another option, Lorenzana said, is to transfer the Filipinos to a “peaceful area.”
“They can go to Saudi Arabia or to Oman which is a little bit far from the battlefield and then from there, we can bring them home,” he said.
President Duterte, in a chance interview yesterday afternoon, reiterated his concerns for Filipinos in the Middle East.
He also said that should war ensue, the Philippines would abide by Mutual Defense Treaty with the US.
He, however, said personally he does not favor the sending of Filipino troops to conflict areas abroad.
“Out of the question, unless the national interest would demand it and it would be decided not by me, but me and Congress,” the President said.
Duterte said what he would allow is allowing the Philippines to be used for transit of vessels, for refueling, and delivery of provisions.
Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman, said the President also directed Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers Abdullah Mamao to go to Iran and Iraq to deliver the “special messages of the President of the Philippines” to the Iranian and Iraqi governments, which is to ensure the safety of the Filipinos there and that “no Filipino be harmed in the course of the ongoing conflicts”.
Panelo said the Duterte also formed a special working committee composed of the National Security Adviser (Hermogenes Esperon) and the secretaries of the defense, interior, foreign affairs, labor, and transportation departments.
“The President is gravely concerned with the condition and safety of overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran and nearby Arab countries, as a result of the escalating tension between Iran and the United States of America … Foremost in the mind of the President is the safety of Filipinos in the Middle East and he assures the Filipino community and the nation that the Philippine government is doing everything it can in making sure that our fellow citizens abroad are out of harm’s way,” he said.
On Sunday, Duterte convened his security and defense officials following the growing tensions in the Middle East arising from drone attack by the US that resulted in the death of a top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
The President has asked the military to place its assets on standby in case of a forced evacuation and repatriation.
Panelo said if Filipinos are harmed, Duterte will side with the US.
“The President was very specific in saying last night (Monday night) that if the Filipinos are harmed, he will side with the Americans. That is precisely why he is specifically instructed Secretary Mamao to go to Iran and Iraq and deliver special message to the Iraqi and Iranian government of his urgent desire and wish that no Filipinos be harmed in the course of the conflict. If they will harm the Filipinos, then the President will not sit down idly and watch,” he said.
The House of Representatives is ready to accede to President Duterte’s request for Congress to convene in a special session to help map out contingency plans related to the ongoing tension in the Middle East, House majority leader Martin Romualdez said.
Romualdez said that as of yesterday, the House was still awaiting for Malacañang’s formal communication to the House since lawmakers will need guidance “on what is expected of Congress during the special session.”
“While waiting for the Palace communication, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has already asked the House secretariat to make the necessary preparations for a special session,” he said.
Under Section 87, Rule XI of the House Rules, “The Speaker, in consultation with the majority and minority leaders and their Senate counterparts, may convene the House in session at any time during a recess or between sessions to consider urgent legislative matters or concerns.”
Romualdez said the House leadership agrees with the President’s pronouncement that the rising tension in the Middle East “is a major concern that needs urgent legislative attention.”
“We are ready to clothe the executive with all the powers needed to make sure that every Filipino is safe and secure in these trying times. We join the nation in praying for safety of Filipino OFWs deployed in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. Their safety is our primordial concern at the moment,” he said.
President Duterte asked Congress to hold a special session to discuss the impact of the tension between the US and Iran, including the setting aside of funds that will be tapped in case the situation in the Middle East worsens.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday said the Senate will still have to take the final cue from President Duterte on whether a special session will be held to approve a supplemental budget for the repatriation.
Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said Duterte can use “the billions of pesos of contingency funds” at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.
“Those funds are readily available for these emergencies,” he said.
Congress went on break on Dec. 20, 2019 and will resume regular sessions on January 20. – With Wendell Vigilia and Raymond Africa