About the Middle East and Libya many Filipinos have one fear, and that’s the loss of their jobs as the region and that country fall apart, besieged by the violence of contending sectarian groups and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
That, together with paeans to their bravery, was the subtext in the expressions of concern over the Filipino peacekeepers’ repatriation last week from the Syrian Golan Heights, peacekeeping under UN auspices being, like other jobs in the Middle East, relatively high-paying at around P45,000 a month.
In recent months, fighting in the flashpoints of Iraq, Syria and Libya has focused domestic attention not only on the safety of Overseas Filipino Workers, but also on the possibility that not only will their jobs, which help sustain the Philippine economy, be in jeopardy, but that those and other countries will cease to be markets for Filipino labor.
It’s a valid concern, the region and Libya being in the process of disintegration. For those Filipinos who, despite the rosy employment statistics of the Aquino administration, have nevertheless not found any job at home, or who, already in the region, face the choice of either returning home or hanging on to their jobs as the violence escalates, it’s a prospect that can mean not being able to send children to school or to provide medical care for the family.
These human concerns are legitimate enough, but pale in comparison to the immense human cost of sectarian violence and Western intervention on the peoples of Iraq, Syria and Libya.
ISIS has consolidated its hold over huge portions of Iraq, including its borders with Syria and Jordan. Informed estimates put the number of Iraqis displaced at over a million (ISIS and the Sunnis have forced Iraqi Christians and Shi’ites to flee their homes under threat of extermination). Thousands have been killed, the beheading of a Western journalist being but a sidelight to the brutal campaign of the ISIS extremists for an Islamic Caliphate that would include much of the region.
Fighting between rival armed groups is continuing in Libya, the government of which controls only parts of the capital, Tripoli. As in Iraq, over a million people have been forced to join the swelling ranks of refugees. Oil production is down to 20 percent of what it was three years ago before then Libyan President Muammar Khaddafi was killed. The armed groups that have since proliferated not only systematically torture captives, they also hold thousands of prisoners in a network of prisons across the country.
ISIS, meanwhile, has spread into parts of Syria, while the US-supported rebel groups continue to challenge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The United States is supporting the rebels in behalf of regime change. US Secretary of State John Kerry has told the US Congress that the US intention is to end the crisis in Syria through a negotiated settlement involving Assad and the rebels. But that possibility is likely to be remote should the US launch airstrikes in Syria that could target not only ISIS but also Assad’s forces. US President Barack Obama has nevertheless announced his intention to provide 0 million in arms to the Syrian rebels—arms that could end up in ISIS hands.
The fact is that the US and its allies’ intervention in the region is the root cause of these countries’ disintegration into chaos, with its attendant costs in immense human suffering.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, its attempts to put a client government in place there emphasized sectarian (Sunni and Shia) differences. The American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky quotes Iraqi intellectuals as saying that before then they had not paid much attention to such differences. For example, Iraq specialist Raed Jarrar said that before the US invasion, he barely knew the religious affiliations of even his own relatives because “sect wasn’t really a part of the national consciousness.” Jarrar declared that “this sectarian strife that is destroying the country… clearly began with the US invasion and occupation.”
Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of a Pan-Arab website, thus puts the blame for what Iraq is going through on “the US/Western occupation and the Arab backing for it. Any other claim is misleading and aims to divert attention [away] from this truth.”
As for Libya, the US and its French and British allies ignored a March 2011 UN Security Council resolution In March 2011, calling for “a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians.” The US and company instead launched air strikes against Khadaffy’s forces, which eventually led to his fall and assassination. When the airstrikes were happening, the African Union, Chomsky points out, called for a cease fire, humanitarian assistance, protection of African and other foreign nationals in Libya, and political reforms. Khaddafy accepted the proposal, but the US, France and the UK dismissed it, their aim being to remove Khadaffy from power.
The result, three years later, is a country on the brink of total collapse.
The meaning of developments in the Middle East, and even more importantly, why they’re happening, seem of no concern to most Filipinos including current and aspiring OFWs. And yet these have implications not only on the jobs that most Filipinos say are available only in other countries, but on the lives and fate of millions of fellow human beings.
There has been no lack of comment on Filipino parochialism—the focus only on what’s immediate and proximate, and the refusal or inability to look beyond one’s concerns. It seems an oddity in the present context of the widespread deployment of OFWs all over the planet, which among other consequences should lead to the awareness that they belong to the same race—the human race—as an Iraqi mother’s grieving over the death of her sons, or a Syrian worker’s watching over his injured kin. Perhaps of even more importance is the realization that while all of humanity are one, so are its enemies—the countries and governments that, having destroyed so much, are still focused on destroying even more.
First published in BusinessWorld.