PRESIDENT Duterte yesterday ordered the mandatory evacuation of Filipinos in Iran and Iraq after Iran fired rockets at US-led forces in Iraq, in retaliation to the killing of an Iraqi general over the weekend, according to his spokesman, Salvador Panelo.
Some 2.3 million Filipinos live and work in the Middle East, with about 1,100 of them in Iran, 2,100 in Iraq, and around 33,000 in Lebanon, excluding undocumented workers.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III earlier yesterday said a total ban on deployment will be imposed in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon as he said these areas have been placed under alert level 4 which means mandatory evacuation of all Filipinos.
Panelo, concurrent chief presidential legal counsel, said the mandatory evacuation covers overseas Filipino workers in Iraq and Iran.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, however, said the mandatory evacuation has been imposed for all Filipinos living, working, and staying in Iraq after the Department of Foreign Affairs raised the alert level to level 4 due to security threats.
Panelo said the Filipinos in Iran and Iraq would first be brought secure areas in Qatar or another country nearby, then repatriated.
“It is repatriation of the Filipinos in the areas of conflict. But right now, the concern is the evacuation of these Filipinos to a safe place,” he said.
Asked about the Filipinos who have families in Iraq and Iran or are married to the Iraqis or Iranians, Panelo said government could not force them to leave.
He also expressed belief that Iraq and Iran would have contingences for their citizens and their families.
For the evacuation, Panelo said a government ship and two frigates are on the way to the Middle East. Government is also considering tapping private airlines for the repatriation but no final decision has been reached.
Bello, in a press conference, said it would be a “nightmare” if the conflict between Iran and the Philippines’ close ally, the United States, turned into a full-blown war, but said the government was readying measures to assure jobs for those who returned.
“We appeal to them to go home,” he added. “When conditions get better, they can return if they want to.”
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Eduardo Menez said the decision to raise alert level 4 in Iraq came after several meetings between government agencies tasked to oversee the welfare of Filipinos in the restive region.
A patrol vessel, newly acquired from France and en route to the Philippines, was ordered to sail to Oman and Dubai to assist citizens who may need to be extricated, the Coast Guard said in a statement.
“Overseas Filipino workers will be brought to safer ports where there may be airlifted, as the need arises,” it also said.
Coast Guard spokesman Capt. Armand Balilo said the BRP Gabriela Silang will be deployed either to Oman or Dubai.
He said the ship can carry 500 people at one time and “is more than capable to perform beyond its contractual specification of 20 knots of speed.”
“It has a range of 8,000 nautical miles at 15 knots and an endurance of up to five weeks of operation. It has an excellent sea keeping ability and maneuverability on top of the great comfort it offers for people onboard,” said Balilo.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a retired general and former special envoy to the Middle East, will leave for Qatar today before heading to Baghdad to oversee the evacuation effort.
Cimatu, who oversaw a similar move during the Iraq war, said the current conflict presented more challenges as it was not confined only to Baghdad.
“It is a guessing game which would be the next target,” Cimatu told reporters.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there are plans to send two battalions of troops and marines to Iraq to assist the evacuation.
Lorenzana said the troops, along with ships and aircraft, will leave the Philippines “as soon as possible” after they complete documents.
Lorenzana said the military establishment has prepared two battalions, one each from the Philippine Army and Philippine Marines, to provide security to the Filipinos who will be repatriated.
“The two battalions will not be there to engage in combat but to facilitate or help, assist in the repatriation of the OFWs especially in Iraq. They are not going there for combat,” said Lorenzana.
Lorenzana said the foreign affairs department is working on the papers, refueling, logistics and other needs of the troops and the assets used in the repatriation — two C-130 planes, a C-295 plane and two Navy ships.
Lorenzana said President Duterte ordered the deployment of the two battalions – each composed of 500 men – to the Middle East as a contingency measure in case the situation escalates.
AFP chief Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. said the troops, the ships, and the aircraft will be pre-positioned in “strategic places,” outside Iraq and Iraq.
“The instruction of the President is to prepare for the repatriation of our kababayans there, so the Armed Forces is prepared for that….What we are waiting is the go signal to proceed,” said Santos.
“We have some recommended places, countries, as stage points just in case the situation worsens. We are waiting for the diplomatic clearances because cannot go there immediately (without diplomatic clearances),” he said.
In the event the soldiers are attacked, intentionally or unintentionally, Santos said they are going to defend themselves. “Defense only, no offensive action,” Santos also said.
The government has some P1.8 billion worth of funds in the 2020 budget that can be readily tapped for the repatriation efforts, said Budget Assistant Secretary Rolando Toledo.
“We have provided in the budget already. Even without that (development in the Middle East), we have such a ready funds for the repatriation of our overseas workers … So, even without the pronouncement of the President, we already have the budget for the repatriation,” Toledo said in a briefing in Malacañang.
He said the DFA has about P1.29 billion that can also be tapped for repatriation, while OWWA has P100 million for repatriation activities.
He said OWWA also has some P500 million “free fund” that can also be tapped for repatriation purposes if more funds are needed.
Toledo said if the P1.8 billion is not enough, the President can also allow the contingency funds to be used.
The President on Monday asked Congress to hold a special session to come up with measures to support contingencies plans.
Duterte said while there are funds that can be used, Congress must still pass a law or resolution that will direct the Bureau of Treasury to release funds. – With Ashzel Hachero, Gerard Naval and Victor Reyes