Monday, December 18, 2006

For the benefit of my friends who are overseas, I am reprinting my feature for the International Day of Migration which appears on ABS-CBN's homepage Dec. 18.

Lebanon OFWs top migration story for 2006


Former migrant worker Rosie Mamaoag will be spending Monday, the International Day of Migration, thanking her stars that she was able to come home in July courtesy of the Philippine government.

When the Philippine government first sounded the call for overseas Filipino workers in Lebanon to evacuate because of a bombing war between the Israelis and the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, her female employer started locking her and her fellow domestics up.

“Sabi niya sa akin, hindi ka uuwi except kung patay ka na (She told me I won't be able to come home except in a coffin),” she narrated.

“Malapit kami sa bundok at nakikita namin ang mga bomba na sumasabog sa mga apartment na malapit sa tabing dagat. Safe nga daw kami pero gabi-gabi nakikita namin mula sa balkonahe ang mga sumasabog at naririnig namin ang mga eroplano na dumadaan (We lived near the mountains and so we can see the bombs exploding in the apartment houses near the sea. We were told we were safe but every night we see bombings from the balcony and hear the airplanes passing overhead),” she said.

Agnes left Beirut with nothing on her back. While on an errand, she ran away to the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal parish church in Beirut, where most of the Filipinos were temporarily lodged.

“Ayoko nang bumalik doon. Sana madamay na sa bomba ang mga employer ko (I don’t want to go back there anymore. I hope my former employers were hit by the bombings),” Agnes said.

Horror stories of Filipinas caught in southern Lebanon's hostilities between the Hezbollah and the Israelis dominated much of 2006.

Although the war lasted only a few months in the middle of the year, it was easily the most poignant and repugnant, picture of Philippine migration for they year.

OFW voices

From New Jersey, Filipino community leader Robert Ceralvo said in an e-mail to that, “I hope we learn from this experience - every OFW should leave enough money and provisions for themselves, for emergencies like this one, just enough to buy a fare to bring them home or to safety.”

At the same time, he said, “Our government should also re-think their strategy of sending our OFWs to far-away lands, in order to send back their dollar earnings.

The [Overseas Workers' Welfare Administration] (or our government) should allocate reasonable funds for quick evacuation and repatriation of our compatriots in time of crisis.”

Edna Aquino, who set up the Center for Filipinos in London, added in another e-mail message that, “It (the Lebanon crisis) exposed the political bankruptcy of the Philippine government in not getting its acts together which then affected its ability to urgently respond to a crisis situation involving its citizens abroad.”

But Saudi Arabia-based Filipino community leader Manuel “Bong” Amora said in turn that it is not just the government’s response that is central to the Lebanon crisis.

“The vulnerability of Filipino overseas workers of violence particularly our Filipina domestic helpers continue to worsen year by year. Our government and policy makers' response [to] the issue has not been comprehensively explored or little has been done.”

In another e-mail message, Amora narrated a recent news story about two Filipino domestic helpers gang raped in Kuwait. He said this just shows how the government ineffectively addresses the rampant activities of illegal recruiters coddled by big-time syndicates and crooked officials.

“The story conveys how helpless our [Filipino] maids in foreign countries are and how they are susceptible to maltreatment and abuse. It does not only give damage to the reputation of working women sector but to the whole country as well,” Amora said.

He added: “Does our government have to wait for another Sarah Balabagan in the making to attract international attention before we can have a concrete measures to prevent such inhuman act to our Filipina household workers?”

From New Hampshire, Marvin Bionat who formed ‘Talsik’, a movement to keep an eye on the government and allegations of corruption, said the horror story of 2006 was, “Filipinas jumping out of windows to escape the cruelty of their employers and their decision to stay abroad anyway.”

“Why do Filipinos have to leave the country even if it means breaking up their families and facing the desolation and dangers of exile? Lack of opportunities and the desperate need to get out of the rut plus a general hopelessness that the government can't do much to help create the conditions of progress continue to drive young and bright Filipinos/Filipinas away to foreign shores,” Bionat said.

OFW representation needed
But Vic Barrios, chairman of the San Francisco-based Global Filipinos, said, “The most important issue for 2006 is the glaring need for Philippine authorities to recognize in concrete terms the important role and requirements of global Filipinos. While global Filipinos receive accolades as ‘economic heroes’ who keep the country afloat, they have been marginalized given the absence of a crisis-responsive government safety net and non-recognition of their rights to participate in the Motherland's governance.”

Definitely, Barrios said, “a quick-response capacity requires that global Filipinos should be actively involved in the Motherland's governance. Overseas/global Filipinos are political orphans. Is it understandable, then, that there are no mandated public servants who regard them as their constituencies. This anomaly needs to change, as well. Only global Filipinos in legislature can genuinely be concerned with the needs of global Filipinos.”

Aquino said the issue of OFW remittances should not be forgotten as it was also a highlight of 2006.

“Migrant workers' remittances continue to be consistently on the rise but government continues to lack a comprehensive long-term strategy on the export of its labor that would address its over-dependency on these remittances to prop up the economy,” Aquino said.

OFW remittances for the first 10 months of the year have reached $10.3 billion for 2006. Remittances last year totaled $10.6 billion.

Idelfonso Bagasao, founder of the Economic Resource Center for Overseas Filipinos (ERCOF), who shuttles between Manila and Brussels (Belgium), said “the biggest story is the one that is not most written about, and that is the resiliency and capacity of OFWs and their families to survive and bend with the wind despite the adversities, the social costs and insensitivity of politicians, alongside an increasing trend for volunteerism and willingness to share resources and skills.”

“This not an issue for OFWs but more for government, because if this trend continues, then one day, government may wake up to find itself extinct and totally useless,” he said.

OFW remittances today make up almost 10 percent of the country’s gross national product and at more than $8 billion for the first 11 months of the year, is about to surpass the 2005 figure of $10.6 billion.

But OWWA head Marianito Roque told that aside from the horror stories from Lebanon, the top migration issue for 2006 was the trafficking of these workers to the war-torn country.

Roque once said that roughly 2/3 of the OFWs who arrived from Lebanon were not even documented as migrant workers. A few were even minors. It was no wonder that others, like 18-year old Sabel Abano, were thankful when their passports were destroyed in the bombings.

Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, said the Lebanon evacuation was indeed the country’s top issue, but all it did was highlight how unprepared the government was in dealing with that issue.

“The government did not learn their lessons from the past. They should have been prepared because of what happened during the two gulf wars and the creation of the Middle East Preparedness Team,” she said.

What happened instead was that government effort was uncoordinated. “They did not even know where some of the OFWs were,” Sana lamented. She added that the Philippine government did not even know where to source resources for the evacuation. Most OFWs in Lebanon were repatriated through the International Organization of Migration.

“Watak-watak ang naging response nila (Their response was uncoordinated),” she added.

Eager to escape Beirut, Abano said: “Mas masahol pa ang mga babaeng employer kaysa sa mga lalaki. Pag may nagawa akong mali, hinihila ako sa buhok at pinapaulit. Sinasagot ko nga lang at hindi naman nakakaintindi ng Ingles o ng Tagalog ang babaeng amo ko. (Female employers are worse than the male ones. Whenever I do something wrong, she pulls my hair and orders me to do it again. I answer back because she cannot understand Tagalog or even English anyway).”

She hopes never to go through that again. But if the need arises, she just might have to find pack her bags and find overseas work again. One thing is for sure, though, it will never again be in Lebanon.

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