LABOR Secretary Silvestre Bello yesterday said Filipinos in Iran and Lebanon will no longer be covered by the mandatory evacuation and repatriation declared by government on Wednesday amid rising tension between the United States and Iran.
Iraq will stay covered by the forced evacuation, Bello said.
Worries of a broader conflict in the Middle East eased yesterday as the United States and Iran have backed away from the brink of further conflict.
Bello said, “Initially, the level of alert for Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon are the same: Alert Level 4. Although it was unofficial, I was informed yesterday that the alert level in Lebanon was put down to level 2, and I understand that there’s no more alert level in Iran.”
“Meanwhile, the mandatory evacuation for OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in Iraq is still in place,” he added.
On Wednesday, Bello announced government will be implementing mandatory repatriation of OFWs in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon after the alert in those countries was raised to Level 4.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a retired general who has been tasked by President Duterte to be special envoy to the Middle East, left for Qatar yesterday to oversee evacuation efforts.
He said the repatriation of Filipinos in Iraq remains mandatory because the government could not just wait for worse things to happen.
“The situation is unpredictable, sometimes there are some instances of a very surprise missile attack,” he told reporters before his departure.
“They have the option to press the trigger. We have to be ready in case there will be some incidents along the way.”
Cimatu was referring to Iran’s launching of missiles on Wednesday at US-led forces in Iraq, in retaliation for the US drone strike on an Iranian commander whose killing last week stoked fears of a new Middle East war.
US President Donald Trump responded overnight to the Iranian attack with sanctions, not violence. Iran offered no immediate signal it would retaliate further.
Cimatu urged relatives of undocumented Filipinos in Iraq undocumented to contact their agencies so government can help them if they want to be repatriated.
He said it would be difficult for government to trace the undocumented OFWs in Iraq.
“We don’t know where they work. We don’t know where they are. But we encourage them to show up and get in touch with us so that we can help them,” he said.
Eduardo Menez, a spokesman at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the government is prepared to respond to any changes in the situation in the region and will assist citizens who wish to return home.
“Alert levels are constantly reviewed and adjusted as needed,” Menez told reporters.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said more than half of the 1,600 Filipinos working in Iraq, were in the Kurdistan region and the rest at US and other foreign facilities in Baghdad and in commercial establishments in Erbil.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman, said evacuation and repatriation operations cover Iraq and Iran. Asked about Bello’s statements, he said he would verify which countries are covered by the evacuation efforts. As of presstime, he has not issued a statement.
Panelo said the directive is to continue the evacuation, “unless the de-escalation reaches a point where the safety of our countrymen is no longer in peril.”
1Pacman party-list Rep. Eric Pineda, chair of the House committee on labor and employments, advised OFWs in Iraq to carry IDs and passports at all times and leave their communication lines open as the government prepares to repatriate them in case the situation in the Middle East escalates.
Pineda said both documented or undocumented OFWs should coordinate with the embassy “regardless if they wanted to return home or to transfer to another safe location.”
The Manila International Airport Authority said the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is ready to accommodate returning OFWs. – With Jocelyn Montemayor, Rod Lagusad, Noel Talacay, Wendell Vigilia and Reuters