Forced evacuation ordered; PH troops to escort Filipinos out of Iraq

By: the Inquirer staff January 09,2020 - 08:20 AM

MANILA, Philippines — The government on Wednesday ordered the mandatory evacuation of  Filipino workers from Iraq as tensions between the United States and Iran escalated, with Iranian missiles slamming into US bases  in  retaliation for the US airstrike that killed the top Iranian military commander last week.

On President Rodrigo Duterte’s instruction, the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad raised the alert level in Iraq to its highest on Wednesday morning and announced the order requiring Filipinos to leave the country due to escalating security risks.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Manila confirmed the order to evacuate on Wednesday afternoon.

Iran and Lebanon, too

Earlier, the President ordered Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to travel to the Middle East to oversee the repatriation. Cimatu is leaving for Doha, Qatar, on Thursday to set up base there for the operation.

Except for Iraq, no security alert levels were raised elsewhere in the Middle East, according to DFA spokesperson Eduardo Meñez. But Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said the highest alert level had also been raised in Iran and Lebanon.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. met with the heads of the embassies of Iran and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for discussion of the safety of Filipinos in the region.

The Philippine Embassy in Tehran is also preparing to extricate Filipinos from Iran, Cimatu said on Wednesday. In Iraq, more than a thousand Filipinos have signified their willingness to leave, he said.

Until Wednesday, the DFA had called only for voluntary repatriation of Filipinos in Iraq, except Kurdistan, which is far from Baghdad and relatively safe.

There are an estimated 1,600 Filipinos working in Iraq, including many who are in US facilities and commercial establishments.

Cimatu said the Filipinos would first gather at the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad, where government vehicles would ferry them to safety.

“If the airport in Baghdad is still open, they will use that,”he said.

Other options have been proposed, he said, including traveling by land to Amman, Jordan, or to the airport in Irbil, in Kurdistan, where they can take a plane to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates or to Doha and then another plane for their flight home.

In Iran, if the Filipinos cannot fly out of the country, Cimatu said they would travel by land to Turkmenistan, then fly to Ankara in Turkey before finally heading to Manila.

Military protection

Cimatu, a former military chief, said Philippine flags would be used to mark the vehicles carrying the Filipinos to indicate that they were not combatants.

The military will deploy Marine and Special Forces personnel to protect the evacuees, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday.

He said Mr. Duterte wanted the deployment of two battalions to assist in the evacuation. The troops will not engage in combat, but would only protect the evacuees, he said.

Goddes Libiran, assistant secretary for communications at the Department of Transportation, said the government might seek help from Philippine airlines for the evacuation of Filipinos in the Middle East.

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific officials said they were ready to help the government.

The Philippine Coast Guard said on Wednesday it was sending a vessel to the Middle East to ferry Filipinos home. The new patrol vessel BRP Gabriela Silangon was en route to the Philippines from France but had instead been ordered to head to the Middle East to help with the evacuation, the Coast Guard said.

The government has P1.89 billion in funds that it could tap to finance the evacuation, Assistant Budget Secretary Rolando Toledo said on Wednesday.

He said there was P1.29 billion in the DFA budget and another P100 million in the budget of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration that could be used for the operation. 

“Yes, we have money, a standby fund ready. The government is ready if there is a need, a call for the repatriation of overseas Filipinos workers,” Toledo told reporters in Malacañang.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the government’s primary concern was bringing the Filipinos to a safer place and not flying them home at once.

He said not all of the Filipinos could be flown home at once and might be first taken to Saudi Arabia. There is a ship ready to take them to a safer place, he added.

Labor traffic cut

Bello said senior labor officials, along with a rapid response team, would fly to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the next few days to brief Filipinos there on the plan for their evacuation.

He said the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) would soon release a resolution imposing a complete ban on labor traffic to Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

The POEA, he said, has already started scaling down deployment to other countries in the Middle East.

—Reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Jhesset O. Enano, Miguel R. Camus, Leila B. Salaverria, Jovic Yee, Jeannette I. Andrade and AP

 

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TAGS: Filipino workers, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, repatriation of workers, tensions, US and Iran tension

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