Mandatory repatriation of Filipinos in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon as highest alert raised

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 8) — All Filipinos living in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon were ordered to return to the Philippines after the highest threat alert was raised in those countries amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, an official said on Wednesday.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told reporters that Alert Level 4 was raised over the three Middle Eastern countries. Mandatory repatriation is ordered under that alert level, which is issued when there is large-scale internal conflict or a full-blown external attack in the area.

"Ang marching order sa amin ay mandatory repatriation," said Philippine Embassy in Iraq Chargé d’Affaires Jomar Sadie.

Malacañang said Filipinos in Iraq will not be forced to go home; they can opt to be evacuated to a safe place instead. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said one of the options is to send them to Saudi Arabia, where there are frigates awaiting their arrival.

"Repatriation is out of the question when there is a shooting war. We have to place them in a safe place. Hindi naman sila kailangang umuwi habang nagkakaroon ng giyera doon o digmaan. Hindi mo naman maiuuwi iyun talaga," he told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: They don't have to go home to the Philippines when there is an ongoing war. You can't bring them home anyway.]

He said repatriation remains the Philippine government's "end goal."

But would Filipinos even want to be repatriated?

"Most of the Filipinos there are married to Iranians, so are they coming home or not? Hindi mo naman pwedeng pilitin kung ayaw nilang umuwi," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

[Translation: You cannot force them if they don't want to go home.]

Bello also said that they would not be able to do anything in case Filipinos refuse to cooperate in the mandatory repatriation. Still, he appealed to them to heed the government’s call for them to come home.

Hindi natin masiguro na kapag sumabog ito, kahit na gaano kaganda ang buhay nila doon, hindi mo matitiyak ang kanilang kaligtasan,” he said.

[Translation: We are not certain of their safety if this blows up.]

Troops to be deployed

President Rodrigo Duterte during a command conference with defense officials in Malacañang Tuesday night ordered the deployment of at least a thousand troops from the Army and the Marines to the Middle East to assist in the repatriation of Filipinos from countries in the region.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made it clear that the troops there would not engage in combat with anyone.

"'Pag in-ambush sila, proteksyon lang naman. They'll protect themselves," Lorenzana said.

[Translation: If they are ambushed, they'll just protect themselves.]

The rules of engagement that will cover the troops have yet to be finalized. But whether they will actually be allowed to carry out rescue missions is still unknown.

"That will be decided upon by higher [authorities,] but we are ready to do everything. Pero siyempre, we want authority and higher-ups' decision. That will be the higher-ups' decision," Lorenzana said.

The DFA is now working out documents, including diplomatic clearances, to allow the deployment of Philippine troops for the repatriation.

"What we are waiting is 'yung go signal nila to proceed ... Kasi 'di naman pwede pagka sinabi na, 'Pumunta kayo doon,' we could go there immediately. We have to go on with the process," Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff LtGen Felimon Santos Jr. said.

[Translation: What we are waiting for is their go signal to proceed ... Because we cannot just go there immediately when they tell us to do so. We have to go on with the process.]

The coordination will include where Philippine military planes will land, where Philippine Navy ships will dock and where these assets will refuel and resupply.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is eyeing deployment in at least two countries — Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who is also serving as the country's special envoy to the Middle East, said Dubai will serve as the central logistics base for the repatriation.

Troops will likely be transported through the Navy's landing dock vessels within 72 hours after they get a go signal. However, Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said it may take them 18 to 22 days to reach the Middle East.

Filipinos might have to travel by land

Cimatu said they will convince Filipinos living in areas where the highest alert level is raised to go home. He also appealed to their families to convince them to return to the country.

Cimatu said they plan to send 1,592 Filipinos in Iraq who are ready to go home on a flight from Baghdad's airport to Manila.

There are 4,204 Filipinos in Iraq, with 4,000 of them being undocumented, according to data as of June 2019 from DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers.

Government officials are now giving conflicting numbers on the current numbers of FIlipinos in Iraq, with DFA Spokesperson Eduardo Menez saying Wednesday that there are around 1,600 Filipinos there. The Labor department, meanwhile, says there are 2,191 Filipino workers in Iraq.

If the airport is closed, Cimatu said the Filipinos will be transported by land on a bus to Amman, Jordan or Erbil in Iraq, where they can board a plane to Dubai or Qatar, and then board another plane to Manila. He added that the bus that will be used to transport Filipinos will display the Philippine flag as a signal to combatants that they are not involved in the ongoing conflict in the area.

Filipinos in Iran, meanwhile, can be transported by land to Turkmenistan, Cimatu said. From there, they can be brought to Ankara, Turkey, where they can board a plane to Manila.

He also assured that the Foreign Affairs department will help Filipinos who cannot obtain visas to get the necessary travel documents for them to be repatriated.

He added that they will prepare Filipinos in Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain for a possible Iranian strike on US bases there.

Bello assured that the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration will give financial aid to documented Filipino workers who will be repatriated from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Undocumented Filipino workers will be brought home, but would not get financial aid, he said.

He also assured that they will provide livelihood assistance to Filipinos who will be brought home. He added that the Labor Department is in talks with China, Japan, Russia, Canada and Germany for the redeployment of Filipino workers.

Bello said the government is eyeing to use commercial planes or Navy boats to send back Filipinos home. He also said he will ask his counterpart in Qatar if they can lend the Philippines a plane for the repatriation of Filipinos.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has also ordered all local government units to provide all forms of assistance to Filipino workers who will be evacuated from Iraq and Iran.

The government said it is ready to roll out a mass repatriation for Filipinos living and working in the Middle East, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) administrator Hans Cacdac said Tuesday.

Related: PH ready for mass repatriation amid conflict in Middle East

Military officials are also considering tapping the services of cruise ships. The Philippine Coast Guard said its BRP Gabriela Silang is sailing to either to Oman or Dubai to carry out repatriation missions. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard's first offshore patrol vessel, BRP Diego Silang, which was on its way to the Philippines from France has been diverted and will be sent to either Dubai or Oman.

Conflict between US and Iran continues to rise after US President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq on January 3. On Wednesday, Iran fired missiles at two bases housing US troops in Iraq.

Keep in touch with the embassy

Filipinos in Iraq were urged to contact the embassy following the repatriation order.

"We know the options and choices of our citizens abroad may change. They may choose to wait. The key is to keep in close touch with the embassy so they're properly informed," Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Administrator Hans Cacdac said.

Sadie reiterated the importance of coordinating with the embassy located in Baghdad. He said there are options for the processing of Filipinos who wish to go home, such as asking for the help of their employers or by personally contacting the embassy, especially if they're not employed.

According to data from the DFA as of June 2019, there are 29,676 Filipinos in Lebanon — 11,972 of them are undocumented or irregular migrants. Meanwhile, there are 1,181 Filipinos in Iran, with 59 of them undocumented. The same data shows there are nearly 2.2 million Filipinos in the Middle East.

Filipinos in Iraq may contact the embassy at 0781 606 6822 and 0751 616 7838. They may also contact the embassy via email through or, or through its Facebook page, Philippine Embassy in Iraq. They may also contact DOLE at (0632)1349 and OWWA at (0632)1348.