OFWs demand probe of repeat free riders in COVID repatriation program

Migrante International (MI) called for a deeper investigation into reports of free riders taking advantage of the government’s repatriation program for distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Reacting to Commission of Audit’s (COA) finding that thousands of supposed OFWs availed of emergency repatriation from two to five times and receiving free flights, lodging and food from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), MI said it is appalled and angered by the report.

In its 2022 annual report on the OWWA, the COA said 3,707 overseas Filipino workers availed of free flights under the government’s COVID-19 emergency repatriation program more than once, indicating the program was used for other purposes.

“This finding is most disgusting, reeks of corruption, deserves immediate and thorough investigation, and should result in responsible officials being sacked and held accountable,” MI chairperson Joanna Concepcion said.

“Some people are going on travels, maybe even junkets, by using the people’s money, taking advantage of services devoted to distressed OFWs, and depriving OFWs and migrant Filipinos of funds for much-needed services,” Concepcion added.

MI also pointed out that since most of the frequent flyers were from Northern Mindanao, the practice reeks of patronage that may only be pulled off with the direction of high government officials.

“Where were these supposed OFWs going? Some secret government project abroad perhaps?” Concepcion asked.

“We demand an immediate and thorough investigation into this mess. Those responsible in high places should be sacked and held accountable,” she added.

Concepcion said Congress’ deliberation of the proposed 2024 national budget is the right time for the government to be transparent with regard to the number of repatriated OFWs under the program.

With more than 10 million Filipinos abroad, the government carries out emergency repatriation in the event of any political unrest or natural calamities in their host countries.

OFWs distressed by medical, psycho-social, or legal problems requiring treatment, counselling or legal representation are given priority under the program, according to the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995.

The Department of Labor and Employment reported 800 thousand Filipinos whose jobs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic were repatriated as of November 2021.  “Emergency repatriation is therefore for OFWs who, because of widespread unemployment and poverty in the country, tried their luck abroad but faced unfortunate circumstances. It is repugnant that people will be travelling or going on junkets by taking advantage of services for said OFWs. Ang kapal ng mukha! (They are shameless!)” Concepcion said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)