In light of delayed repatriation of OFWs remains Migrante urges Congress to probe OWWA, DFA funds

Antipolo City, August 16, 2010—Migrant workers’ watchdog Migrante International urges the Congress to investigate the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) on how they spent their funds and why they have failed in bringing dozens of frozen cadavers of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Mid-east and other parts of Asia, home.

In an email, Migrante chairperson Garry Martinez said, their Manila and international offices, have been receiving numerous complaints from the families of OFWs who have died abroad, saying that the DFA and OWWA have asking them to shoulder the repatriation costs of their kin’s remains.

Martinez said that this “tradition”—of asking the relatives to pay all the costs, from autopsies to freight costs—of the two state agencies have become an unwritten policy.

“Saan ngayon nila dinala ang P150 milyon na pondo para gamitin sa ganitong mga bagay? (Where did they spend the P150 million funds allocated for these services?),” Martinez told CBCPNews.

A saga of death, despair and difficulty of “coming home”

Marilou Sables, an undocumented overseas contract worker in Taiwan, died due to cardiac arrest on April 17, 2009.

According to reports, the Sables family had sought assistance from the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the de facto consular office of the Philippines in the Chinese territory, but its officials said that there they have no funds to process Marilou’s repatriation, for she’s an undocumented worker.

Thus, MECO chief Antonio I. Basilio had referred the family to the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (OUMWA), headed by Esteban Conejos, in order to get financial assistance in repatriating Marilou’s corpses.

“But, to the family’s dismay, Assistance to Nationals (ATN) chief, Atty. Carlo Aquino on June 2009 had said that they cannot help the family for neither they have the funds to assist to bring home her remains. This statement contradicts Basilio’s pronouncements that the DFA had the funds to assist Marilou’s repatriation,” Martinez explained to CBCPNews.

Marilou’s body remained in a morgue for 11 months, only to be buried in Taipei last March 26.

She was exhumed last July 31, had undergone DNA testing, was cremated and finally, repatriated last August 7th.

But before her repatriation, there were “commotions” between the MECO and the Filipino caused-oriented groups in Taiwan.

Migrante International-Taiwan Chapter chair Dave Chang revealed in a statement sent to CBCPNews that Atty. Art Abiera of MECO-Manila Office in Makati City had told Cynthia Deduro of Gabriela-Ilo-Ilo, in one of the dialogues conducted in connection with Marilou’s repatriation, to stop processing Charymar Sables’ documents—Marilou’s daughter—for her travel in Taiwan in order to see her mother.

“Abiera said that the Taiwanese government cannot wait for Charymar’s arrival, that’s why they have decided to bury her. This was on April 21, 2010,” says Chang.

It has been tedious process, says Chang, for Marilou’s repatriation for they needed to conduct six dialogues in order to convince MECO and Taiwanese officials to assist Marilou.

“MECO, at first, just wanted to Marilou to remain there and said that they will just provide scholarship for her daughter. But we remained firm in our stance that she needs to be repatriated,” Chang said.

The technicality issue, in connection with the identification of the dead OFW, has added to the difficulty of repatriating Marilou’s remains, says Chang.

“Even if Marilou’s family confirmed her identification a week after her death, Taiwanese authorities did not agree to her repatriation because the fingerprint in her Alien Residence Certificate did not match that of her actual finger,” he said.

A DNA sample was taken from Marilou’s daughter and was compared with the samples taken from the remains, and had matched. When the results were out on June 20, only then Taiwanese government had issued clearance for Marilou’s exhumation and cremation.

The Carmen family had undergone pains and disappointments before they can have Mark Lloyd Carmen, the OFW murdered in Kish Island in Iran, in their arms.

Full of dreams, Mark Lloyd went to Abu Dhabi via tourist visa on April 4, hoping that he can find work there. Luckily, he was hired by one of the hotels there but had to leave because his visa is near expiration.

Based on Migrante’s report, he left for the nearest exit point in Kish Island on June 11 to wait for the release of his working visa, being processed by his employer.

However, on that fateful day of July 1, Mark Lloyd had met his untimely death when he had a fight with a Sudanese.

Stabbed by a metal nail pile on his chest, Mark Lloyd had suffered from severe bleeding for his roommates were unable to immediately bring him to the hospital. Under the Iranian law, only the local authorities are allowed to take him to the hospital.

He was brought to the hospital, two hours after the incident and only remained alive for 10 minutes.

Leila Gonzaga, Mark Lloyd’s relative living in Abu Dhabi, upon learning about the murder, had immediately gone to Kish Island to claim his body. It was the hotel management, where Mark Lloyd had stayed, shouldered his hospital expenses and the freight cost for his body’s transfer to the Philippine embassy in Tehran.

However, when Gonzaga had appealed for help in order to repatriate Mark Lloyd’s remain to the Philippines, she was told by embassy officials that it was the family’s responsibility to shoulder the cost of autopsy and airfare for the return of his remains to the Philippines amounting to almost half a million pesos.

“So the family here had sought the OUMWA for help but they told Mark Lloyd’s mother that they had to shoulder US$8,000, or approximately P360, 000 for his autopsy and the freight cost, for the repatriation of her son’s remains,” Martinez told CBCPNews in an email.

Due to enormous pressure from different migrants’ groups, the DFA had finally “gave in” and extend full assistance for Mark Lloyd’s repatriation. However, the DFA said that the amount “advanced” from the ATN used for Carmen’s repatriation must be paid by the family.

“Since the ATN Fund is limited, and only up to the extent of the allotment given to the DFA, the Filipino worker or his next-of-kin is asked to make an undertaking to refund the amount advanced by the DFA. The worker or his family can pay when they are able,” explains the DFA.

The DFA also furthered that reimbursed amount is then used to assist other OFWs in distress, notably for those facing death penalty convictions; other repatriations; funding of halfway and resource housing; payment of basic necessities, medical expenses, immigration and visa fees, and overstaying penalties; jail visitations; translation services; and other financial assistance.

More cadavers, warm bodies await repatriation

On the other hand, there were reports that there are about a dozen more cadavers remain in the freezers in an undisclosed morgue in Iran, awaiting repatriation.

In an email, John Leonard Monterona, Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator, told CBCPNews, notwithstanding the declaration of the DFA that they have already checked the veracity of the information and find it “untrue”, they remain firm on their information about the corpses of Pinoy workers, frozen in Iran.

“It was an insider from the Philippine Embassy in Iran who has told me, via a phone call, that there are about a dozen corpses of our compatriots who have there, remain frozen in the morgues in Iran,” Monterona said. Monterona said, the informant had requested for anonymity that’s why he cannot disclose the informant’s name to CBCPNews.

“I was inquiring about the death of Mark Lloyd when the informant told me about that. I was surprised, really, especially when the Embassy staff disclosed that the cadavers have been there for six months or more,” Monterona furthered.

In addition to the cadavers that await repatriation, there are thousands of warm bodies that await repatriation too.

Based on Migrante’s records and even the DFA’s there are about 10,000 stranded OFWs in Kish Islands and more than 20—most of them are women and children—in Jeddah-Philippine Embassy’s Bahay Kalinga, await for the government’s help to go home.

“It’s government duty to bring them home”

“Pursuant to Republic Act 8042 or the Migrant’s Act, it is the responsibility of the employer, the recruitment agency and, ultimately the DFA or the OWWA, to shoulder costs of the repatriation. However, more often than not, employers and recruitment agencies do not perform their duties, with accordance to the law. So, at the end, it was the government, which has the final responsibility to ensure that these people, dead or alive, be repatriated,” explains Martinez.

To date, OWWA has collected, for 2010, an estimated $12 billion, from the mandatory $25 contributions from OFW members, a portion of which should be earmarked for emergency repatriation.

But due to allegations of corruption of OWWA funds during the presidency of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and some anomalous spending and transactions made by some DFA officials, the migrant workers’ watchdog, hence, pressures the Congress, even Malacañang, to investigate how these funds have been used.

“We call on Congress to audit and investigate these funds in the coming budget deliberations. Lagi na lang itong napapalagpas at hindi napaparusahan ang mga humuhuthot sa pondong dapat ay para sa mga OFW,” Martinez further said. (A SPECIAL REPORT on MIGRANTS, written exclusively for CBCPNews.com)