ROSE-AN JESSICA DIOQUINO, GMA News January 4, 2012 2:30pm
UPDATED 4:00 p.m. - The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday said there are about 1,500 Filipinos in four critical areas in strife-torn Syria, where a mandatory evacuation of Filipinos is going on.
In a press briefing on Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said although most of the Filipino population is concentrated on the country’s political capital Damascus, about 1,500 are in the critical areas of Daraa, Homs, Hamah, and Idlib.
View Hotspots for Pinoys in Syria (January 2012) in a larger map
“The four areas I mentioned are considered as conflict-stricken; you do not have access in the area, we’re not allowed to be there. We’re not allowed to leave Damascus without permission from the government,” he said.
Even though the Philippines has placed the alert level in Syria at "4," which entails mandatory repatriation, Del Rosario said many Filipinos want to stay there because of the lack of economic opportunities in the Philippines.
“I did not see many people who wanted to be repatriated. In fact, I did not talk to anyone who wants to be repatriated,” he said in a press briefing, adding that they are looking at repatriating only 10 percent of some 10,000 Filipinos in the area.
Del Rosario said around 95 percent of Filipinos in the area are domestic workers—most came to Syria illegally and who earn only $150 a month.
“If you are trafficked [and you make] $150, it may take you the full contract of three years for you to pay for your obligations. So our people are placed at the disadvantage,” he said.
However, Filipinos there who have good employers “don’t feel particularly threatened” because there is a sense of protection, he said.
“I think those signing up for repatriation are those who are not treated well by their employers,” he added.
Meanwhile, Del Rosario also alleged that there were law enforcers in the Philippines who facilitated the exit of Filipinos to Syria, taking them to a three-month trip that goes through Zamboanga and Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
He said these workers are victims of human trafficking, which is one of the things he brought up with his meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
The minister, however, said their government’s priority for the moment is bringing peace back to the country.
Del Rosario said one of the difficulties they are facing in their repatriation efforts is that 90 to 95 percent of Filipinos in Syria are undocumented.
He disclosed that he also sought the foreign minister’s help in re-building the database of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, which has currently registered around 5,000 people – including those who came without proper documents.
The embassy in Beirut used to hold the database, which showed that there were 17, 000 Filipinos in the area as of 2008.
Del Rosario admitted that it is hard to track down all of the Filipinos because majority of them came in the country illegally.
He said there are many ways for Filipinos to work in Syria, like traveling there as tourists then going to an employment agency that can secure them a working contract.
“They’re recorded on the Syrian side, but not on our side, so that’s our problem… We think there are more out there, so we continue to seek these people out,” Del Rosario said.
Del Rosario's visit to Syria
Meanwhile, Del Rosario said one of his agenda during the two-day visit was to Syria over the New Year weekend was to coordinate with Syrian officials on how to get in touch with Filipinos in the isolated areas.
“[Foreign Minister Al-Moallem] said the people are not allowed to go near the place, but he said that if we could nominate to the ministry which people we have there we want to be repatriated, they will contact the local officials and locate them for us,” he shared.
“These four areas are critical to us because we need to know who’s there, how they are, and if they would want to get out,” he added.
Meanwhile, a BBC report on Monday said that according to the United Nations (UN), more than 5, 000 people have been killed “in a crackdown on anti-government since March” of last year.— VVP/TJD, GMA News