The cost of repatriating thousands of overseas Filipinos since the COVID-19 pandemic started in February 2020 is now nearing P1 billion and counting, a report from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) showed.
DFA Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola admitted in an exclusive interview that its P1-billion Assistance-to-Nationals (ATN) fund under the General Appropriations Act of 2020 is “almost depleted” and that they are now drawing funds for ongoing and forthcoming repatriations from allocation under the “Bayanihan to Recover as One.”
“As of 28 December 2020, out of the ATN Fund under the GAA 2020 which is almost depleted, P598.7M was spent on repatriation alone. As we speak, we have utilized P217.4M for repatriation purposes out of the P820M allocation given through Bayanihan II,” Arriola said in a written response to queries sent by the Manila Bulletin.
But beyond the huge money being spent for repatriation are the challenges and expectations that the DFA is facing everyday as it seeks to extricate stranded and distressed Filipinos abroad and reunite them with their families and loved ones. After all, the DFA is mandated to protect the rights, promote the welfare and interests and ensure the security of overseas Filipinos.
As of this writing, the DFA assisted the repatriation of nearly 350,000 nationals, about 70.7 percent of whom are land-based workers coming from at least 90 countries around the world, while the remaining 29.3 percent are seafarers from more than 150 cruise ships, oil tankers, and other bulk vessels.
Baptism of fire
Arriola recalled that as early as January 28, 2020, the Philippine Embassy in Beijing and the Philippine Consulate General in Shanghai liaised with Chinese authorities to facilitate the repatriation of some 30 Filipinos in Wuhan, the ground zero of COVID-19.
On February 9, 2020, a 10-member team from the Philippines, with representatives from the DFA Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs, personally flew to Wuhan City to bring back all 30 Filipinos.
“Since then, during this COVID-19 pandemic, the men and women of the DFA have shown bravery and courage, put their own lives at risk, and gone above and beyond their call of duty to reach Filipinos, even in distant and dangerous parts of the world,” Arriola noted as she paid tribute to her colleagues in the department who have been “reaching beyond their grasp” despite limited resources.
Through its various Embassies and Consulates General around the world, the Philippine government was able to make representations with the government of destination/host countries to protect the rights and to promote the welfare of overseas Filipinos. Arriola said it is worthy to highlight the crucial role being played by international assistance and cooperation during the pandemic.
She remembered in particular the repatriation of Filipinos in Uzbekistan where the Philippines has no embassy and honorary consulate. To execute the repatriation to perfection, the DFA had to work remotely with the Philippine Embassy in Tehran, the employers, recruitment agencies, POEA and OWWA on planning and coordinating the operation.
Amid a total lockdown at that time when no commercial flights were allowed to operate, the Philippine government successfully brought home 257 overseas Filipinos from Tashkent, with the help of the Uzbekistan government which gave the DFA permit to land a chartered plane and issued exit visas to the repatriates.
Arriola said each Embassy or Consulate General is equipped with a contingency plan that maps out the respective overseas Filipinos and their jurisdictions, including possible exit points and mode of transportation in the event of an emergency. Under the COVID-19 situation, she maintained that these contingency plans proved “very useful” in formulating the DFA’s repatriation plan despite the global travel restrictions and scaled-down workforce.
Attached agencies such as the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, OWWA and DSWD representatives abroad, including the Police and Military attachés, function under the One-Country Team Approach to plan the respective repatriation strategies specific for their needs and nuances
Each Philippine Embassy or Consulate General activates a Repatriation Team with members fully aware of the risks, develop a repatriation plan with specific timelines but with flexibility to adjust to unforeseen changes / scenarios on the ground to ensure a successful repatriation operations.
Impact on seafarers
Based on the DFA’s experience in repatriating distressed overseas Filipinos, Arriola said the pandemic’s impact had an immediate effect on the cruise line industry and on thousands of seafarers on board cruise ships. When countries started closing their borders in March 2020, the tourism industry was heavily hit and cruise line companies were forced to suspend operations. Thus, the first calls for repatriation came from seafarers on board these cruise ships.
From March to June 2020, the DFA facilitated the arrival of several chartered flights per day, each carrying seafarers from cruise ships docked all over the world.
“They had no choice but to come home, without certainty as to when they will be called again for work. I understand however that cruise line companies are starting to prepare for the resumption of operations in 2021 and that our seafarers are slowly being deployed again overseas,” Arriola said.
Likewise impacted by the pandemic were the “irregular migrants” or those who left the country to find work overseas using a visa other than a work visa. When countries started to impose lockdowns and businesses had to temporarily close shop, the already limited job market for irregular migrants dwindled further. The worsening situation compelled many to avail of the repatriation flights of the DFA.
On a brighter note, the crisis helped curb trafficking-in-persons. Traffickers have been prevented from recruiting and having their Filipino victims fly on a tourist visa because of the heightened restrictions in traveling overseas and the ban on non- essential travel for at least seven months in the Philippines.
Arriola said DFA partner agencies such as DOLE and OWWA have several reintegration programs for our repatriated OFWs ranging from loans, grants for livelihood projects, financial awareness seminars and scholarships for dependents of OFWs.