Monday, August 07, 2006

Two Filipinos Die in Lebanon

Two Filipinos die in Lebanon
By Christine Avendaño, Cynthia Balana
Last updated 02:57am (Mla time)

THE FIRST FILIPINO deaths since the war broke out last month in Lebanon were reported yesterday by Vice President Noli de Castro, head of the task force formed to oversee the emergency repatriation of overseas Filipino workers from the war-torn country.

Although confirming the deaths, the reports of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the labor department differed as to circumstances surrounding their deaths.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo yesterday continued her appeal to Filipino workers in Lebanon to heed her call for a mandatory evacuation, saying the window for their safe departure was getting narrower each day.

De Castro said the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) reported that one domestic helper was killed while trying to escape from her employer to join the evacuation, while another fell while reportedly cleaning the window of an apartment.But the DFA said the two Filipinas died when they jumped from buildings to flee employers who apparently refused to let them go.

Rafael Seguis, foreign affairs undersecretary for special concerns, who is on his way from Syria to Lebanon, said the information was relayed to him by consul Marlon Miranda of the Philippine embassy in Beirut, which was also confirmed in GMA Network’s Flash Report.

De Castro last night identified the OFWs as Mary Jane Pangilinan and Michelle Tomagan, who fell on July 26 and 28, respectively, from the apartments of their employers.

The labor department said the falls may have been accidental.

Manuel Imson, labor undersecretary for international labor relations, told that “initial verbal reports” received by the department said the two “were cleaning windows when it happened. We're still waiting for the official police reports to tell us if they fell, jumped, or were pushed.”

Citing a report by Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Al Francis Bichara, De Castro said the embassy first received unconfirmed reports of the two deaths only on July 29 due to “dilatory factors attendant to the current crisis situation in Lebanon.”

These factors included the closure of certain roads due to Israeli air strikes, the congestion of landlines/mobile networks and the highly erratic schedule of local authorities.

He said the embassy arranged for the transfer of the bodies to the Baabda Government Hospital Morgue and the documentary requirements for the repatriation of the remains through Harb Est, the mortuary regularly commissioned by the embassy.

Based on the medico-legal reports of the Directorate General of Internal Security Forces, a copy of which was furnished the Inquirer, Tomagan, who was in her 30s, fell from the apartment when she tried to escape from her employer to join the mass evacuation of OFWs.

Pangilinan, 24, fell from the balcony of the home of her employer, Richard El Hajj, in Masourieh, while reportedly cleaning a window.

De Castro talked to the parents and families of both Pangilinan and Tomagan last night at the OWWA office.

He said Tomagan had been complaining to her family that she was being maltreated by her employer and that she wanted to get out. He said that when Tomagan’s mother informed her of the evacuation effort of the government, Tomagan probably saw it as an opportunity to escape.

“We must have a mandatory evacuation if we are to expect a zero-casualty rate in a war that is increasing in breadth and tempo,” the President said in a televised roundtable discussion on Lebanon a day after she ordered all 30,000 Filipinos there repatriated.

“The window for safe evacuation becomes narrower for each day that battles ensue on land,” she added.
Ms Arroyo said the government had enough funds to bring home all the OFWs. Some of them have refused to leave Lebanon despite the violence, citing poverty and the lack of opportunities at home that has driven 10 percent of the Philippines’ 85 million people to find work abroad. Their dollar remittances are helping keep their country’s economy afloat.

But the President said it was better to evacuate now than to wait until the fighting had worsened.


“I want to assure our countrymen who come home from Lebanon and whoever is forced to leave for work overseas, it is our policy to allow our citizens to work only in safe places,” she said. “Our country is always ready to put you out of harm’s way and to help you find work and recover.”

She said that through the National Livelihood Support Fund, P100 million would be provided to help the OFWs take part in livelihood and microfinance programs, including the “Tindahan Natin” project in impoverished communities.

Ms Arroyo promised the OFWs, many of them domestic helpers, that the government would help them find work either at home or in the Middle East, like Dubai. This included upgrading their skills so that they would become “supermaids.”

“They should (be able to) find jobs with families who will offer them high salaries,” she said.
Augusto Syjuco, head of the government’s Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), said the “supermaids” program includes instruction in first aid, evacuation from high-rises in case of fire and other skills to help maids get higher pay.

“They are not just maids. They are really very well trained now,” he said. “If there is someone injured among the family they work for ... how to get out of a fire in a high-rise building, all these are part of our upgrading program.”

House-to-house calls

The President directed government officials to ensure that they would be able to locate all the OFWs in Lebanon, including by making “house-to-house calls.”

Marianito Roque, OWWA chief, told the President that labor and diplomatic officials were calling the OFWs by telephone.

Roque said 2,372 OFWs had registered with the Philippine Embassy in Beirut their desire to be evacuated once a mandatory evacuation was ordered. The figure did not include more than 2,000 OFWs who had been repatriated upon their request.

Labor Secretary Arturo Brion told Ms Arroyo that upon returning home, evacuees would be provided with, among other things, airport arrival service, temporary shelter, domestic transport to their provinces, pyscho-social and medical assistance if necessary.

As for employment services, Brion said the evacuees would be entitled to livelihood and entrepreneurial assistance, skills training for work scholarships, job search for local employment and reemployment for overseas jobs.

All the evacuees have to do is sign a registration and assistance form upon arrival and submit this to officials, Brion said.

Only soap, shampoo

However, one returnee told the Inquirer that when she arrived at the airport, all she got was soap and shampoo.

In Congress, a bill creating a P500-million standby fund for the mandatory repatriation of the OFWs from Lebanon passed in the House appropriations committee yesterday morning -- 24 hours after it was introduced.

With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Philip C. Tubeza, Jerome Aning, and Associated Press
Copyright 2006 Inquirer,
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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