Why would Philippine ambassador to Lebanon Al Francis Bichara claim that the Philippine embassy in Beirut has run out of funds for the repatriation of Filipino workers unless it’s true?
Certainly Bichara knew the consequences to his career that claim could have, given the fate of government officials like Fe Hidalgo of Education, who’ve dared to publicly reveal such state secrets as the classroom shortage. And certainly Bichara knew how his statement would initially be received back home in the Philippines, where the immediate reaction of the public was to condemn Bichara and the embassy.
Fortunately for Bichara, the reactions of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) have been uniformly suspect.
A DFA undersecretary denied that budgetary problems were hindering the evacuation of Filipino workers, and said that the best evidence against Bichara’s claim was the “movement” of evacuees from Lebanon since the Israelis began bombing that country two weeks ago.
OWWA administrator Marianito Roque, on the other hand, said the OWWA had released US$2 million for 2,000 workers. He added that the OWWA fund stood at P8.1 billion as of December 2004. “We have the funds here and they are being used wisely.”
A DFA undersecretary in Manila was in other words contesting the word of a Philippine ambassador “in the field,” so to speak, and who had no earthly reason to claim that he had run out of funds unless it was true. What’s more the “movement” of evacuees in no way suggests that funds beyond what the embassy had previously spent were available, only a little over a thousand out of the estimated 35,000 Filipino workers in Lebanon having been either repatriated to Manila or moved elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Roque’s declaration that the funds are “here and they are being used wisely” begs the question, the question being whether they’re being used to repatriate Filipino workers, which under the circumstances would qualify as “wise” use of those funds. And is December 2004 really the very latest date OWWA itself has on the state of its funds?
Fortunately the Senate has decided to look into the matter, in addition to the interest some of the senators have shown on the plight of the country’s workers in Lebanon. Senator Richard Gordon thus told the media that the Philippine embassy in Beirut had asked the DFA for funds for the evacuation of 10,000 people, or less than one-third of the Filipino workers there, but had been refused.
From these and OWWA figures we get the sense that neither the DFA nor the OWWA intends to provide funds for the evacuation of more than 10 percent of the Filipino workers in Lebanon–if at all they do intend to provide additional funds.
From Senator Joker Arroyo we have the information that as of July 30 no funds from OWWA had reached the Philippine embassy in Beirut. Apparently confident in the candidness of Ambassador Bichara, Arroyo said that despite OWWA and Foreign Affairs officials’ claims that funds had been sent for the repatriation of Filipino workers, “no money whatever” has come from the OWWA or the DFA.
Arroyo said he had talked to Bichara by phone, and Bichara told him that the funds he had been spending for the care and repatriation of Filipinos workers trapped in Lebanon by Israeli bombing were from the embassy’s operating budget. Bichara did tell Arroyo that the government had told him it was sending “something” but that the embassy had so far not received even the funds to replenish the US$107,000 it has so far spent.
Two possibilities thus emerge from all this. The first is that the Philippine government will evacuate only some 10 percent at most of the Filipino workers in Lebanon. The second is that this is because the funds that the country’s overseas workers that OWWA has so diligently collected over the years are now in the same limbo as the fertilizer fund and the millions in recovered Marcos wealth that were supposed to be in the safekeeping of the Arroyo regime.
Meanwhile, to give the impression that the Arroyo Enchanted Kingdom is doing something, the country is treated daily to reports of Filipino workers happily returning from Lebanon and being reunited with their families.
The catch is that they’re coming in batches of several dozens at a time at most. Because of funds that aren’t there, sheer incompetence, and criminal indifference, more than 30,000 are trapped in Lebanon, where the conflict is likely to intensify and the threat of Filipinos’ dying and being injured grows daily. That impending tragedy is a state secret too–like the classroom shortage, the actual poverty and unemployment figures, the regime policy on political killings, etc., etc.