Philippines braces to evacuate workers in Iraq, Iran

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to prepare to deploy its aircraft and ships “at any moment’s notice” to evacuate thousands of Filipino workers in Iraq and Iran, reflecting Asia’s growing fears for its citizens amid a potential outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

Other Asian nations with large populations of expatriate labor may face similar decisions amid the rapidly escalating tensions between the United States (US) and Iran following last week’s US airstrike that killed Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said last week it would work to increase the security of about 1,600 of its nationals in Iraq, where they work mostly in construction sites. India’s foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said India wasn’t planning to evacuate any citizens from the volatile region “yet.”

Duterte held an emergency meeting with his defense secretary and top military and police officials Sunday to discuss the evacuation plans.

“President Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to be prepared to deploy military assets to repatriate overseas Filipinos in the Middle East, particularly from Iran and Iraq, at any moment's notice,” said Senator Christopher Lawrence Go, a close ally of the Duterte who was at the meeting.

Iran has vowed to retaliate and President Donald Trump warned American forces would hit back at 52 Iranian targets if Americans come under attack. Iraq's Parliament has also called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, which could revive the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

Compounding contingency plans is the uncertainty where hostilities could possibly break out.

Military chief of staff Lieutenant General Felimon Santos Jr. said Philippine forces have identified possible evacuation routes not only in Iraq and Iran but other hotspots, like Israel.

“There are probabilities like that and we are improving our plans just to cover everything just in case something happens,” Santos told reporters in Manila.

There are more than 7,000 Filipino workers and their dependents in Iraq and Iran, including many who work in US and other foreign facilities and commercial establishments in Baghdad, the Department of National Defense said.

The workers in Iran and Iraq are a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who are employed in countries lining the Persian Gulf.

The Philippines is a leading source of labor worldwide with about a tenth of its more than 100 million people working mostly as household help, construction workers, seamen and professionals.

Other countries face similar dilemmas. Asians make up 40 percent of the world's migrants, and Middle Eastern countries are a common destination.

Gulf Arab states are home to more than seven million Indian expatriates who help drive the region's economy and keep its cities teeming with doctors, engineers, teachers, drivers, construction workers and other laborers. In United Arab Emirates, Indians outnumber Emiratis three to one. (AP)