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More Filipinos fleeing Syria; to come home in batches beginning July 29

By Michaela del Callar

MANILA, July 27 -– More than a hundred Filipino overseas workers trapped in the raging conflict in Syria are coming home in batches in the next two weeks, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)said on Friday.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the Filipinos would be sent back to the Philippines in groups due to the limited number of outbound flights from Syria amid the increasing violence and armed conflict between rebels and government troops.

Repatriation would start on July 29, Hernandez said.

“Hopefully we could bring more of those who would like to be repatriated,” Hernandez told reporters at a news briefing.

The government is shouldering the repatriation expenses of the Filipino workers, but many continue to balk on the government’s offer.

Many of the workers also insisted on staying because they feel safe in areas where they are working and are guaranteed protection by their employers.

“There are also good employers whose safety is attached to the safety of their employers who usually guarantee their safety,” Hernandez said.

Manila recently deployed a group of diplomats and security officials, called Rapid Response Team, to Syria last weekend to convince more Filipinos to leave and to map out an exit strategy should air carriers halt its operation.

The Philippine government, led by Foreign Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, is also talking to Syrian government officials to relax its requirements for Filipino workers who wanted to flee from the conflict.

An exit visa is required for each departing foreign worker and securing it is usually a tedious process, Hernandez said.

“It’s a process. We negotiate first with the employer which takes a while then talk to immigration and foreign ministry and the ministry of interior and other paper works necessary for their repatriation,” Hernandez explained.

Only after completing all the necessary requirements for each Filipino worker that their flights to Manila can be booked and paid for, he said.

Another lingering problem is the exorbitant US$ 10,000-refund fee being demanded by Syrian employers to the Philippine government in exchange for the release of their Filipino employees.

The amount covers the processing and deployment fees paid by Syrian employers when they hired the Filipinos to work for them as household workers.

Hernandez said the government had been negotiating for a cutback on the refund and hopefully bring it down between US$ 2,000 to US$ 4,000.

Other Filipinos, on the other hand, have shunned government-organized repatriation, citing lack of economic opportunities back home.

Since the Philippine government mounted its mandatory repatriation plan in March 2011, a total of 1,853 Filipinos have returned home amid the fierce fighting and uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A civil war has engulfed the Arab nation and the Al-Assad regime has continued to step up its offensives against civilians and rebels despite an array of sanctions and condemnations by the United Nations, the United States and its Western and Middle East allies.

Between 8,000 to 9,000 Filipino workers, based in the critical areas of Damascus, Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, and Idlib, are still in Syria, the DFA said.

Hernandez said the Philippine Embassy in Damascus and the Rapid Response Team members have been going around Syrian households in areas with large concentration of Filipino workers to inform them of the ongoing government repatriation operation.

“We want to make sure that people know we have this program,” he said. (PNA) CTB/MDC/rsm

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