Seamen included in Iraq deployment ban: POEA

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    FILIPINO seafarers are included in the deployment ban to Iraq, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said yesterday.

    “Now, therefore, the POEA Governing Board, in a meeting duly convened, resolves to impose a total deployment ban on the processing and deployment of all OFWs, including crew changes and shore leaves of Filipino seafarers, in Iraq,” it was stated in Governing Board Resolution No. 02-2020 dated January 10.

    The deployment ban came following the decision of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to raise the alert level in Iraq to Alert Level 4 due to the escalation of tension between Iran and the United States.

    The heightened alerted has prompted the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to impose a total deployment ban to Iraq as well as the mandatory repatriation of overseas Filipino workers there.

    Meanwhile, two Navy ships left Manila yesterday afternoon to help in the repatriation of thousands of Filipinos living and working in the Middle East.

    BRP Davao del Sur and BRP Ramon Alcaraz were sent off Tuesday afternoon by President Duterte, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Navy chief Vice Adm. Robert Empedrad and other officials.

    Empedrad said the ships are manned by about 130 crew members each. On board the Navy assets are task groups composed of 100 elite Navy personnel, and medical and repair teams.

    “Their main mission, based on the guidance of the President, is to bring back the affected Filipino people from the Middle East,” Empedrad said, stressing at the same time: “Safety of the crew and ship is always paramount.”

    Empedrad could not immediately say the specific destination in the Middle East of the ships and personnel.

    “Based on the initial (plan), I think the two ships will go somewhere lower (Iran and Iraq). We are still discussing the best port that the ships will be initially docked when they arrive in the Middle East,” he said.

    He said it may take about 16 to 22 days for the ships and personnel to reach their destination. “That’s depending on the speed and current. If they go with the current, our ships will arrive earlier,” he said.

    Malacañang said BRP Davao del Sur and Ramon Alcaraz are expected to reach Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in 25 days. It will make a refueling stop in Sri Lanka before proceeding to the Middle East.

    On whether a diplomatic clearance was already issued by the host country, Empedrad said:

    “We’re still coordinating. It will take time. Anyway, our voyage will take about two weeks before we reach there. We have many friendly nations that will help us.”

    DND spokesman Arsenio Andolong could not say where the ships will dock but surmised it may be in Doha, Qatar since the Middle East Repatriation Team is based there.

    Three Air Force aircraft are on standby, ready to fly to Middle East, if given the go signal.

    President Duterte said he will fly to the Middle East, if needed, to help in the evacuation of OFWs and lend assistance to government forces sent to a “sacred mission” of saving the overseas workers.

    The President, during the send-off ceremony, noted there are more than three million Filipinos in the Middle East and underscored the need to save their lives and ensure their safety.

    “This is a sacred mission and it is really to safeguard the lives of the Filipino people. I tasked you this duty with a prayer and with a hope that you will carry out your mission successfully and that everybody will be safe. There will be imponderables to reckon with. Hindi natin alam (We do not know what these are). But I hope that this mission will succeed,” he said.

    The President reassured the Navy of his support, adding that he will track their movement and ensure additional help if the need arises.

    “Do not worry, I will be with you and if need be pupunta rin ako doon kung magkahirapan (I will come to you if you face challenges). I pray that you will carry this mission successfully. I wish you luck. I’ll to my prayers that the winds will sail you to the Middle East safely. I will keep track of every moment of your trip and I will be there in case you need me. Pupunta ako doon sa inyo wherever you are (I will go wherever you are),” he said.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman, said apart from the two vessels, the BRP Gabriela Silang is already on standby in Malta and ready to help in evacuating Filipinos.

    Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was lukewarm to proposals for the creation of a new department to specifically handle the affairs of overseas Filipinos.

    Locsin said DFA personnel posted in various diplomatic posts are doing a great job in taking care of Filipinos, including their repatriation when there are internal conflicts or wars in the country where they are residing or working.

    “There are attempts to make the past Middle East crisis a conclusive argument for creating a separate Department of OFWs. Don’t be fooled. All the work is being done by DFA men and women posted in the region and all extra costs are borne by the DFA. I rejected any additional budget,” Locsin said on Twitter.

    “We will do only the job that needs to be done – no more, no less, not a peso more than Congress gave us the budget to do that job. DFA does not do circuses. I disdain the role of a showman,” he added.

    Functions of various executive offices tasked to handle concerns of Filipino migrant workers will be streamlined and consolidated under the proposed Department of Overseas Filipinos.

    At present, the POEA is the main agency tasked to monitor and supervise recruitment agencies in the Philippines. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, an attached agency of the DOLE, promotes the welfare of OFWs.

    There are about 10 million Filipinos living and working abroad and their remittances constitute a lifeline to the Philippine economy. – With Victor Reyes, Jocelyn Montemayor and Ashzel Hachero