192 Filipino workers on road to Damascus
First batch of evacuees arriving home Saturday
MANILA -- (3RD UPDATE) THE first batch of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Lebanon to be evacuated from the war-torn Middle East country were on the road to Damascus, Syria Thursday afternoon, Philippine time, after the governments of Israel and their host country granted clearance for their passage.
But the original 4 p.m. Friday schedule to arrive here has been moved back to 1 p.m. Saturday because of the need to secure over-flight clearances for the chartered airliner that will be bringing the evacuees home from Damascus, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Gilbert Asuque said Thursday evening.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said a total of 192, not 200 as earlier reported by the department, will be flown directly to Manila soon after their arrival in Damascus.
“It's 192 because some have decided not to go. It reflects our earlier position that we are leaving up the decision to leave on the OFWs themselves. The government is providing options for them,” Conejos said.
This jibed with an earlier statement of Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz who said that of the estimated 30,000 OFWs in Lebanon, only 1,000 have expressed a willingness to be repatriated and actually signed up with the Philippine embassy in Beirut.
And these 1,000, said Cruz, “manifested their desire to be repatriated, but not immediately. Many say they signed up but want to stay on with their employers.”
“This movement of people is closely coordinated with Israeli air force. It is a plain civilian movement. It is moving on its own. We have cleared it with both the Israeli and Lebanese governments, and even the Syrian government for their arrival in Damascus,” Conejos said.
Conejos said the government is constantly monitoring the situation in Lebanon and has specified the conditions for raising the alert level in the country. Alert level three is still in place; alert level four is when there is fighting and chaos in the streets.
He refused to disclose details of the repatriation operation, including the route, number of buses, and specific time the convoy left, “for security reasons.”
The evacuees are expected to arrive in the Syrian capital around 5 p.m. Thursday, Damascus time (10 p.m. Philippine time).
Earlier, Foreign Affairs spokesman Gilbert Asuque said, “As one of you said, the road to Damascus is fraught with danger, but our Ambassador in Israel has coordinated for the safe passage of our OFWs from Beirut to Damascus,” he said.
Conejos, quoting Undersecretary for Special Concerns Rafael Seguis, who is in Syria, told reporters the Emirates Airlines Lockheed 11 chartered to bring the OFWs home will fly from Dubai to Damascus, where it is scheduled to arrive 10 p.m. Thursday, Damascus time (3 a.m. Friday, Philippine time).
Before the change in schedule, the airliner was supposed to leave Damascus after a short layover of around 30 minutes.
Cruz earlier said the direct flight from Damascus to Manila would cost 300,000 dollars.
The 11-member Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) board of trustees approved the release of two million dollars of OWWA monies as a standby fund for the initial repatriation of 2,000 OFWs in Lebanon, Labor Secretary Arturo Brion said.
Brion said the funds approved by OWWA for release will be used for the repatriation, including transportation and other incidental expenses, of Filipinos in Lebanon.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo earlier ordered the release of 150 million pesos for the evacuation of the Filipinos from Lebanon.
Asuque reiterated that funds for the repatriation are available. He also said communication lines with the Philippine embassy in Beirut are open.
Cruz said the first batch of repatriated OFWs include 70 runaways already staying at the Filipino Workers Resource Center in Beirut, more than 30 former detainees turned over by the Lebanon immigration office, with the rest OFWs left behind by their fleeing foreign employers.
GMA Network’s Flash Report said Special Envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu was on his way to Damascus from where he would proceed to Beirut to personally oversee the evacuation of Filipinos from Lebanon.
The report quoted Cimatu as saying he was confident the evacuation of Filipinos from the war-torn Middle East country, which has been pounded unceasingly by Israeli air and artillery strikes for more than a week now, would not encounter any problems.
With a report from GMA 7