Migration is one of the most important global opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. Since the 1970s, generations of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have faced one form of crisis or another that interrupted their employment, endangered their lives and forced some of them to return home. Conflicts, economic downturns, natural disasters and health scares in destination countries or regions where OFWs are present have prompted the Philippine Government to craft policies and action plans to protect and, if needed, repatriate OFWs. The evacuation of OFWs to safety and the repatriation of close to 30,000 during the 1990–1991 Gulf War was the first and most massive such effort that the Philippines had undertaken (Asis, 2013), until COVID-19 occurred.
The Gulf War experience alerted the Philippine Government of the need to develop a response to assist OFWs in crisis situations. Since then, foreign employers and companies employing OFWs have been required to submit a contingency plan outlining how OFWs will be protected and repatriated to the Philippines, if needed. The extension of support and repatriation assistance to OFWs was further codified in the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 (Republic Act No. 8042, as amended by Republic Act No. 10022 in 2010). Section 15 of the law provides for the repatriation of OFWs, the allocation of emergency repatriation funds, and the designation of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) as the lead agency in the repatriation of OFWs. The law also mandates Philippine embassies and consulates to adopt the One Country Team Approach, with the ambassador as the lead, in coordinating efforts to respond to crisis situations (Section 28). In 2015, the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Labor and Employment, Social Welfare and Development, and Health, as well as the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and OWWA, developed the Joint Manual of Operations in Providing Assistance to Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos. The manual aims to provide a “unified contingency plan that will safeguard overseas Filipinos in case of crises and other imminent danger” (DOLE, 2015). Through the various crises and emergencies, Filipino communities proved to be important partners of Philippine foreign missions in providing information and extending support to Filipino migrants. On the home front, OWWA is the lead agency for repatriation efforts, operating a hotline to respond to queries from families of OFWs, coordinating and responding to the needs of OFW arrivals, and facilitating the transfer of OFWs to their origin provinces (Asis, 2013). Thus, informed by experience, the Philippines has established a framework in responding to crisis situations.
Although OFWs have been exposed to several epidemics in the past – SARS, Ebola, MERS-CoV – the impacts were contained or limited. None of these previous health crises resulted in massive job losses, displacements, or OFWs being thrust into stranded situations. With the downturn in the global economy, employment prospects at home and overseas are bleak. The pandemic is not just a health crisis, but is also an economic, social, political and even a humanitarian crisis. Given the distribution of large numbers of overseas Filipinos throughout the world – 5.4 million, according to the stock estimate of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, or 10 million according to the Philippine Government – the Philippines is faced with the daunting challenge of attending to the needs of Filipino nationals outside the country. This paper provides an overview of the repatriation of OFWs under this current and continuing pandemic, noting the challenges encountered and highlighting emerging good practices.
- International Organization for Migration
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