Filipinas in Saudi Arabia complain of sexual abuse

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Original title: 3 OFWs come forward to complain of abuse

Bolstering charges of sexual exploitation against labor officials in Philippine embassies in the Middle East, three female migrant workers came forward on Friday accusing a Filipino labor officer in Saudi Arabia of demanding sex from them in exchange for plane tickets to Manila.

Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had a confidential meeting with the three women and one witness to the alleged predatory behavior of an officer at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (Polo) in Riyadh.

The statements of the complainants tended to support the disclosure of Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello of the sexual exploitation of distressed migrant workers by labor officers in the Philippine embassies in Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.

Bello, head of the House committee on overseas workers¿ affairs, said on Tuesday that he learned about the abuse of distressed workers by labor officers from "unimpeachable sources" in the DFA.

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the meeting between the alleged victims and the witness and Del Rosario was part of a "continuing effort to get to the bottom" of the "sex for repatriation" racket run by labor officers in Philippine embassies in the Middle East.

Del Rosario, three assistant foreign secretaries and one DOLE official met with the complainants.

Television network ABS-CBN arranged the meeting, which was held in an undisclosed location.

Del Rosario has ordered home the labor officers and the heads of the Philippine missions in Kuwait, Syria and Jordan to explain their side of the scandal.

With the emergence of the complainants, the investigation of the scandal has been widened to include Saudi Arabia.

Del Rosario has formed a fact-finding body to investigate the scandal and has also called home the Philippine ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon for "consultations."

Hernandez said the complainants told Del Rosario how the labor officer in the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh treated them while they were waiting to be repatriated to the Philippines.

Del Rosario "listened intently to their sad stories and assured them of protection and appropriate assistance," Hernandez said.

He said Del Rosario urged the women to bring formal complaints against their alleged abuser so the officer could be prosecuted.

The complainants accused the still unnamed Polo official of sexual molestation and of pimping them to "clients" to make money for their plane tickets home.

Fully covered

The DFA earlier clarified that the costs of repatriating distressed migrant workers are shouldered by the government and cannot be used by embassy officials as leverage in seeking favors from the workers.

"We are in the information-gathering stage. With the help of as many people as possible, we are trying to get all information we can so that we [can] complete our plan and [decide] how we can proceed to deal with the real problems that are being identified in a thorough, objective and expeditious manner," Del Rosario told the Inquirer yesterday.

Del Rosario said the DFA would provide protection and extend assistance to the complainants.

"Our objective is to ensure that, in moving forward, our [overseas workers], especially those who are under our care and custody, are protected and treated with respect," he said.

Shelter management

Toward that end, migrant workers¿ welfare advocate Susan Ople suggests that the goverment set up a special team to manage embassy-run shelters for distressed migrant workers.

In a statement issued Thursday, Ople, president of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, said the team should "look into safeguards" in embassy-run shelters to make sure the migrant workers are not subjected to further abuse.

"We need a parallel effort to review and improve the conditions of welfare centers for [overseas workers] in various countries," Ople said.

"These shelters and every inch of our foreign posts must be safe havens for distressed women and workers overseas," she added.

Ople received the 2013 Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award from the US Department of State in Washington on Thursday for her efforts to combat human trafficking in the Philippines.

The award, presented to Ople by US State Secretary John Kerry, coincided with the release of the state department¿s annual report on human trafficking.

Specialised services

Ople cited the part of the report that said the Philippine government "identified and provided protection to trafficking victims, but did not make significant efforts to increase the availability of specialised services."

She said the government¿s Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking could introduce such services, including professional management of shelters for distressed overseas workers.

The sex for repatriation scandal involves serious allegations that deserve a "sober and impartial probe," Ople said.

"The best defense against this and other allegations is for the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to train and professionalise the staffs that run the shelters and maintain strict and unified standards for embassy personnel access to the wards in these shelters," she said.

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