When Taliban extremist troops took control of the Afghan capital Kabul on August 15, over 100 Filipinos were trapped in the war-torn country. With most of them working for American and British military companies, who are the Taliban’s worst enemies, the stranded Filipinos have every reason to fear their lives, especially if they are later caught by the extremists.
As of August 20, only 35 of the stranded Filipinos had returned home on a government-chartered flight via Qatar, and 90 remained trapped in Kabul, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration chief Hans Cacdac said Friday.
With all commercial flights to and from Kabul suspended, it is unclear what fate awaits the 90 Filipinos stranded in the war-torn country. Their fate is uncertain after the hasty withdrawal of US forces that helped government forces fight the Taliban insurgents for 20 years.
It is clear that the increasing mass evacuation missions are far more problematic than those portrayed in Hollywood films.
Tens of thousands of frightened Afghans rushed into Kabul airport on August 15 to flee the country and escape the feared atrocities of the Taliban. Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law that deprived women of most of their rights, including education and employment.
The political catastrophe in Afghanistan underscores the precarious position of the OFWs in the Middle East when they encounter armed hostilities in the region.
As with previous conflicts in the region, the government’s strategy and response in Afghanistan has been mostly ad hoc, relying mainly on the means of transport available. Although the number of Filipinos captured in Afghanistan is relatively small at just over 100, the government did not have an easily accessible mechanism to get them en masse out of danger in the war-ravaged country.
Taking Afghanistan as a starting point, it’s pretty easy to conjure up much worse nightmare scenarios where OFWs are trapped and stranded in other armed conflicts elsewhere in the region.
For example, if Saudi Arabia, which is home to about a million OFWs, becomes riot and requires a mass evacuation of Filipinos, what will the government do to respond to this major crisis? If the government can’t even evacuate 100 stranded Filipinos in Afghanistan at once, what can it do when hundreds of thousands push for mass evacuation?
With conflicts simmering in various parts of the Middle East, other difficult questions should be addressed. Given the ongoing threat of armed conflict, should the government continue to deploy its nationals across the Middle East? Or should it instead start shutting down operations on behalf of other regions, such as the Asia-Pacific region, where armed conflict is rare?
What, if any, quotas can be set up for the rushed mass evacuation of OFWs from Middle Eastern countries? Can military or commercial aircraft be mobilized for this at short notice?
Why is there still no mass evacuation mechanism in place, even though OFWs began to be deployed in the Middle East as early as the 1970s? This is of course a major oversight.
These questions should be addressed sooner rather than later – before the next armed conflict breaks out, which could require the mass evacuation of besieged OFWs. For example, Qatar, which was home to over 260,000 Filipinos in 2017, is in an occasional dispute with neighboring Saudi Arabia. Israel, home to around 31,000 Filipinos, remains trapped in a simmering conflict with the Palestinians and Iranian-backed armed groups in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Libya continues to be ravaged by the civil war.
SAW rights attorney and California-based Amanda Bueno said the government should reconsider its SAW operations in the Middle East. “Why put Filipino nationals at risk? Why not stop the operations in the Middle East? ”She said.
SAW lawyer Eli Mua, based in Saudi Arabia, said that some action could be taken by OFW leaders during the crisis, but mass evacuations can be problematic.
Joseph Glenn Gumpal, President of Samahang Pilipino sa Afghanistan, underlined this when he announced that a plane chartered by Philippine Airlines had suspended its scheduled pick-up of 80 Filipinos at Kabul airport last Thursday evening as it was flooded by thousands of Afghans who want to flee the country.
Mua said that in times of crisis in the Middle East, the government should recruit volunteer OFW leaders for tasks such as monitoring and assessing the situation, mobilizing and even creating contingency plans. Finally, the government should adopt a one-stop solution through a Department of SAWs rather than relying on separate agencies, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Labor and affiliated agencies, he added.
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