OFW Iraq to Doha exodus begins

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THE first batch of Filipinos being moved out of Iraq will depart on Monday night for Qatar, where they will await their flight back home, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Monday.

The flight to Manila from Doha may be delayed, though, following the cancellation of flights at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) due to Taal Volcano’s phreatic eruption.

The 12 overseas Filipino workers (OFW) represent the first group of overseas workers being repatriated from the Middle East due to Iraq’s volatile security situation, sparked by the January 3 United States air strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad airport.

“The first batch of 12 returning OFWs from Baghdad, Iraq is scheduled to depart for Doha, Qatar tonight, Monday, January 13 at 9 p.m. [Baghdad time]. They will arrive in Doha at 12:30 a.m., January 14,” said Lorenzana, chairman of the government’s committee on the repatriation, in a statement released by DND spokesman Arsenio Andolong.

“The OFWs are scheduled to board a Qatar Airways flight to Manila; however, this still has to be finalized as all flights coming into Manila have been canceled because of the Taal Volcano
eruption. [Labor] Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who is in Doha, Qatar, is set to accompany the OFWs on their flight home once their flight is confirmed,” Lorenzana added.

The defense chief said Overseas Workers Welfare Administration  Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac was supposed to leave on Sunday for Saudi Arabia to personally see to the welfare of Filipino workers in the Middle East and assist in the repatriation effort.

Lorenzana said the government has received requests for repatriation from OFWs in Iraq, Libya, and other Middle East hot spots through its embassies and consulates in the region, and these are already being processed.

The Middle East Repatriation Team in Doha, headed by Energy Secretary and Special Envoy to the Middle East Roy A. Cimatu, is exploring all possible routes of repatriation by commercial airlines from Baghdad and Erbil in Iraq to Doha, Qatar, and then to Manila.

Lorenzana said two Philippine Navy ships with a company-sized contingent of military humanitarian assistance personnel onboard have been designated for the repatriation mission, while two C-130 and one C-295 transport aircraft are also on standby.

The military will send just a small team of soldiers to the Middle East instead of two battalions from the Army and Marines as earlier planned, because of the sensibilities of Middle Eastern countries.

“During the last meeting of the Committee on Repatriation that I presided over as the chairman last Thursday, the DFA, Secretary Cimatu and the DOLE commented that it may not be wise to send uniformed servicemen to the Middle East due to the sensitivities of the countries there. Hence, it was agreed that we recommend the sending of a small contingent of servicemen instead of two battalions, but they will be in civilian attire and will not be armed should they be needed on the ground,” he said.

“Also, two battalions would be a lot and they would be taking much of the spaces on the ship, leaving very little or nothing for the repatriates,” he added.

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