Like a poignant scene from a film, thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) continue to scramble their way out of the strife-torn Libya. Some have been on a trek across the desert for days, while others have already crossed the east and west borders of the North African country to access ships and planes chartered by their employers.
For the families of OFWs, the drama is too much to bear. For the Aquino government, the ongoing dilemma could be a major blunder in-the-making.
More than 30,000 Filipinos are working in the oil-rich country, with most of the OFWs based in major cities Tripoli and Benghazi. Others are working for oil companies in the Libyan desert.
As of March 2, around 9,231 Filipinos have exited Libya, 859 of which have arrived in Manila. Most of the evacuations were made by the employers and recruitment agencies who have their own contingency plans.
Around 14,097 Filipinos are still waiting evacuation by the effort, a separate report said.
As it appears, the government has come up with a contingency plan for OFWs in Libya only in the face of the civil unrest. But the Palace said it is stepping up its rescue operations.
Over the weekend, the government chartered a Cyprus-flagged MV Ionian Queen to fetch OFWs in the city of Benghazi (in Eastern Libya), adding that the ship would be shuttling back and forth until all Filipinos in the eastern city had been evacuated. The chartered vessel is expected to bring today 1,290 OFWs to the island of Crete in Greece.
The government is on a full repatriation mode since last Feb. 25, which means that it must evacuate all 30,000 Filipinos from Libya.
The violence, however, has been ongoing in Libya for weeks now following similar upheavals in neighboring countries Egypt and Tunisia.
Amid the calls swamping the DFA, the government only raised a voluntary repatriation alert on Feb. 22 and sent an eleven-man team to Libya. During this period, the government was still finalizing transport arrangements and primary exit points for stranded Filipinos.
Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Erlinda Baldoz was quoted in a radio interview on Feb. 23 as saying that “there is no need for mandatory evacuation yet. At this time, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ assessment only warrants voluntary evacuation of Filipino workers from Libya.”
Two days later on Feb. 25, the government went on full repatriation mode, though with still no chartered vehicles. Other countries started full repatriation weeks ago and had already embarked on a land, sea and air operations.
On the same day when full repatriation was announced, Secretary Baldoz said in a news report that the hostilities in Libya are expected to be “temporary” and have no major impact on employment of Filipino workers.
Yet weeks ahead of full repatriation efforts, OFWs and their families have been seeking government evacuation.
OFW Gil Lebria lamented how embassy officials had been missing in action for the past days amid the cry for help of many of his fellow OFWs. He has recently boarded a government-chartered ship from Benghazi to Djerba, Tunisia, and is awaiting exit to Malta where he and other OFWs could catch their flight to Manila.
But Lebria said that it is their company, not the government, that shouldered their air fare expenses to Manila, a Bulatlat report said.
Migrant rights group Migrante International described in the same report the government’s crisis management as “slow and inept.”