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OFWs in Syria: A grim tale of human trafficking


They may just be 37 in number, but the group’s profile — 31 of them trafficked and illegally recruited into Syria in the Middle East -- is a grim picture of Filipinos seeking to better their lives by clutching at straws of foreign employment.
Last Monday, with repatriation from civil war-embroiled Syria now mandatory for all Filipinos, they flew home to the Philippines escorted by Vice President Jejomar Binay, the presidential adviser for concerns involving overseas Filipino workers (OFW) and chair of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT).
The group of 36 females and one male were interviewed on Tuesday by the IACAT to determine, among others, why they were in Syria in the first place.
The IACAT results, released on Thursday, showed also that the lone male, from the province of Pangasinan, was the oldest at 57 years old and worked in a Syrian printing press.

As this developed, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-governmental advocate of distressed OFWs, called for a congressional inquiry into the Philippine government’s rescue operations in Syria.
Four in the latest group of repatriates were in their very early 20’s and have been working in Syria for at least three years.
“Based on these facts, it can be safely assumed that they were still minors when they left the country,” the Vice President said. Another five, from Mindanao, admitted to possessing passports with their false identities.

Binay instructed the IACAT to find the agencies who recruited them.
“The interviews will go a long way in helping us identify recruitment agencies violating existing deployment rules in the country. These would also help us root out government officials and personnel involved in illegal recruitment and trafficking in persons.”
The Vice President has earlier ordered the mandatory interview of all returning OFWs after the IACAT determined that a minor was among those who arrived from Syria last January.

At the same time, Binay warned Filipinos against pursuing work opportunities in Syria, which has become dangerous. A Filipino woman, Meran Prieia Montezor, who was fleeing Homs with her employer’s family, was ambushed last February 24 and died from bullet wounds.
Many OFWs still in Syria have gone to the embassy in Damascus asking to be repatriated.
Binay noted that the situation in Syria is increasingly volatile. Just last month, IACAT also intercepted 22 women, some of them minors, who were bound for the Middle East.

“Two of those rescued were due to fly from Manila to Cebu then onwards to Dubai. According to the caretaker of the house where the women were staying, her boss has contacts in Dubai who will process the OFWs’ entry to Syria,” Binay said.
The IACAT mission, led by the Office of the Vice President, includes the National Bureau of Investigation’s Anti-Human Trafficking Division, Department of Social Welfare and Development and non-government organizations Blas F. Ople Center and the Visayan Forum Foundation.

The possibility of more OFWS getting killed or injured in Syria is not far-fetched, said the militant non-governmental organization, Migrante.
Its coordinator in the Middle East, John Leonard Monterona, claims there are now three Filipino deaths, not just one as reported by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

“It is sad to note again that our OFWs who were forced to accept jobs, even those deployed illegally in Syria, serve as collateral damage in the wait-and-see stance of government’s rescue and repatriation operation,” said Monterona. “Efforts must be pro-active,” he said.
Susan Ople, the head of the policy center, said that the tragic death of Montezor “underscores the need for the government to give full priority and attention to the fast-developing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

by Gloria Jane Baylon

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