Senators back Duterte's plan to evacuate OFWs in Middle East

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 07 2020 04:34 PM | Updated as of Jan 07 2020 10:15 PM

MANILA - Several senators on Tuesday backed President Rodrigo Duterte's plan to repatriate overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East who may be in danger due to the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States.

Duterte earlier sent Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a former military official, to the Middle East to "lay the groundwork for evacuation" after Tehran vowed to avenge the death of Qassem Soleimani, its top commander who was killed in a US airstrike.

"That is a gargantuan task that would need the support of all our government agencies to be able to bring home such a large number of people," Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said in a statement.

About 4 million OFWs are staying in the Middle East, with some 1,600 Filipinos in Iran and another 6,000 in Iraq, according to data from crisis management committee chief and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Sec. Silvestre Bello III.

Senator Richard Gordon urged Duterte to convene the National Security Council so that the body can discuss if there is a need to appropriate additional funds for the repatriation program.

"Repatriation is not easy... If you ask for a budget, you have to present to us a plan and how you plan to spend it," Gordon said, noting that the Senate is ready to tackle the matter even 2 weeks before the chamber's scheduled January 20 resumption of sessions.

"If they [Palace] call for a special session, that is a call that we cannot ignore," he said.

While additional allocations have yet to be finalized, the executive department can utilize the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration's contingency fund, Zubiri said.

"Those funds are readily available for these emergencies," he said.

Senator Francis Tolentino said the country should also start increasing its oil inventory to 30 to 40 percent from the current 15 percent amid continuing tensions in oil-rich Western Asia.

While the Philippines is not directly importing oil from Iran, the Department of Energy earlier said fuel prices in the market have been affected by unstable geopolitical tensions linked to Soleimani's death.

"Kung maging 30 o 40 percent, malaking buffer yun kung sakaling magkaroon ng malaking sigalot sa Middle East," Tolentino said.