Press briefing by President Aquino on efforts to evacuate the OFWs in Libya

Press Briefing by President Benigno S. Aquino III and Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte:
On the government’s efforts to evacuate the OFWs in Libya

Briefing Room, 2/F New Executive Building, Malacañang, Manila
February 24, 2011; 17:00 hrs. EST

DEPUTY PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESPERSON VALTE: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. President Benigno S. Aquino III is here to take your questions. Good afternoon, Mr. President.


PRESIDENT AQUINO: Puwede bang magbigay muna ako sa inyo ng kaunting geography lesson? May dala-dala tayong mapa. Hopefully, you can see it, ‘no?

[Opens the map]

This is Libya in white. Ang neighbors niya: Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Chad—mayroon din dito Sudan. Siguro naman, I think, most of us are aware of current affairs. Medyo hindi pa ganoon ka-clear ang sitwasyon sa Egypt—Tunisia also. Tunisia was the first, ‘di ba? In contrast to Lebanon’s situation, Lebanon had Syria that was stable. Lebanon had one portion of its boundary with Israel as the focal point of the troubles. Tripoli is here, Benghazi is here, opposite ends of the country. Benghazi has traditionally been opposition country vis-a-vis Muammar al-Gaddafi. Si Gaddafi has been perceived as a stable regime. If I can make a recall, there was an attempt by the US government some point of time. There was a bombing on his tent, if I’m not mistaken, which is his residence sometime in the late 70s. Anyway, our only presence, like typically of all our missions everywhere, we only have a presence in capital which is Tripoli. We don’t have a consulate in Benghazi. Again, opposite end—so, that’s the first difficulty. Next, if we move them, get them out of the troubled area—where exactly do we bring them to? Susunod ho mismo dito sa Malta. Malta is the nearest. Malta naman, you will have to go by ship. Marami rin ‘yung ports, like the Port of Tubruk, we understand has also been closed. ‘Pag closed, ‘yung airports also have been closed. Meaning the airport in Tripoli, the airport in Benghazi has been close. Pero, there was a firm that sent two planes to recover their employees. Unfortunately, one has been stranded in Tripoli; the other one never get to land in Libya.

So, ano ba ang efforts natin dito? Contrast ko muna. Egypt: the 6, 000 close to 7, 000 Filipinos citizens we have can be roughly characterized either students or domestic helpers, meaning, people who will have less ability to able take care of themselves. Hence, we need to better attend to them, ‘no? In Libya, most of them about 26, 000, most of the 26,000 rather, based on POEA [Philippine Overseas Employment Administration] figures—are professional. The professionals belong to multinational corporations that have had their own evacuation plans. So, iyong first part, if there is a need—kasi there a four Alert Levels, ‘no— ‘yung fourth, which calls for evacuation is in coordination with these companies and we have been in touch with them and their recruitment agencies here. And, those that will not be a taken by their employers, those are the ones we are preparing for.

Towards that end, we have been negotiating with both PAL [Philippine Airlines] and a Middle Eastern airline—I think it’s a Qatar Airways—to lease their planes to be able to bring back to our country those of our citizens who want to come back here. ‘Yung cost involved roughly is about 13 million pesos per flight and we will handle about between 200 to 300 per flight. There is already a stand-by fund accessible to our embassy—the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] and DOLE [Department of Labor and Employment]—amounting to at least a hundred million pesos of this point in time, but there is substantial funds that can still be release if there is a need to physically evacuate all of our citizens.

The problem with actual evacuation is that, as you all know, there has been a lot of killings in Libya—close to 300, according to the media reports—and the question of safety of moving our people from wherever to their destination also has to take in mind whether its increases the risks. Siyempre, ‘yung confrontations will be where the people are massing up and where the security forces have taken very violent and drastic actions against them. And unfortunately—I would assume, like our country—you will have to pass through major thoroughfares that might bring you closer to where the potential for violence exist. Hence, you have to very, very cautious that you do not increase their danger by unnecessarily moving them from point A to point B.

(Sorry, let me just consult my notes.)

So, we have gone from Alert Level one—one is basically precautionary measures advising everybody to take the necessary steps. Alert Level two, calls for restricted movement. Alert Level 3, where we are now, calls for relocation and voluntary repatriation. So far, there is not a call to move to the last level—iyong the level 4—which is enforced evacuation for all of our citizens.

I understand that we have already one citizen [to] comeback. He passed through Egypt. There is a new group of 96, ‘no? They will first go to France. ‘Yung French firm ang employees nila. They will be bringing some of there own expatriates to France first, then these 96 will be coming to the Philippines.

There has been criticism that we have not been handling or attending to them. That is not correct. There are severe limitations on what we can do. I would like to emphasize, if we were perhaps as rich a country as America, then we can have a consulates everywhere and anywhere. But, the truth of the matter is, be it Egypt, be it Korea—in Korea, we demonstrated our capabilities already— we have contingent roughly of about 25 or less. Towards that end, we have also sent six members of the DFA to assist the Embassy there, plus five from DOLE. So, we have sent 11 additional personnel to assist our citizens in Libya. The way it works is it’s not the Embassy that goes out to each and every citizen we have in the country. We work with civic associations, various other NGOs, the firms that have employed them to be able to collect our people and put them in areas of less risk.

Mia Gonzales [Business Mirror]: Sir, what message can you give to the families of Filipinos who are stranded in the certain places and have no way of going to safer areas?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: Well, doon sa mga stranded na areas, the Embassy—I was in touch actually with the ambassador yesterday and we are prioritizing dapat ‘yung mga taong hindi kabilang doon sa mga kompanya na may kanya-kanyang evacuation plans. Kumbaga, sinisigurado natin na lahat ma-a-account, lahat maabisuhan. Tapos, hindi lang po tayo ang gumagawa ng paraan. Miyembo po tayo ng International Organization of Migration. IOM for short. There are also having… they’re drawing up plans and actualizing these plans to safeguard all of these migrants who are working in Libya. So, we are participating in their efforts; we are also asking assistance to assist our citizens.

Christine Avendaño [Philippine Daily Inquirer]: So, what is the assessment, sir? Like, how many are we going to move from Libya?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: Mahirap mag-assess, Christine, dahil hindi nga natin ma-assess ‘yung political situation sa Libya. There are reports, for instance that a lot of the security forces of Gaddafi are nonresidents—they’re non-Libyans. Exactly how long will there be violence against its own people? How long before the people engage in their own violence? The best that we can do, I think, at this point in time, is first: instead of picking each and every one from their individual places of employment or residences, then, have them in more manageable groups so that when the opportunity arises that we can bring them to another country— be it by boat, or be in by plane, or be it over-land routes—then we will be able to do so with the least amount of risk possible. So we have to be guided by risk assessment. And there is an assessment, for a situation like Libya is very, very fluid. It does, and can, change. And then, you have statements from both Kadafi and the son, saying—you know they’re talking about blood, and the “last bullet” and all. It doesn’t really calm the situation any.

Now, again, these are the countries that were considered the most stable: Egypt, Libya. All of these leaders have been there for almost two decades. I guess everybody did not realize how this was the moment it would all suddenly not be stable.

Avendaño: For now, ilan ang we are prepared to move out from Libya and from Egypt?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: I assume it will be the first contingent of about … about 13,000 of the 26,000—if necessary. Sa Lebanon, and by contrast, we had about 30,000 there. We only had to repatriate 6,000. May choice ‘yung doon sa Lebanon eh. A significant portion—about 18,000—decided to stick it out when there was a problem in Lebanon.

Avendaño: What’s the worst scenario that we are facing? Ano ‘yung naging assessment, sir?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: So far, wala pa namang total breakdown, ano? Nakakapasok pa naman tayo sa Egypt. For instance, mayroon tayong cooperation from them to get the transit visas, so that we can move them from there. Kasi iyong Egypt contingent goes to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and that’s PAL [Philippine Airlines] picked them up. PAL has a flight to Jeddah; and that’s where we leased the aircraft, or we had talks to lease the aircraft so we can move the people from Jeddah back to the Philippines.

Celerina Monte [Manila Shimbun]: Good afternoon, sir. I just noticed na kasama niyo na si Mr. [Albert] del Rosario. Formal na ba ‘yung appointment niya as DFA Secretary?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: That’s it. As soon as you release me, I’ll be swearing him into office.

Monte: So parang, in principle, siya na talaga?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: He will be inheriting a whole set of problems, ano? And I think he should be—he and I, especially in this crisis; he’ll be my lead person there—should be aware of everything that’s happening.

Monte: Sir, so you’ve mentioned na nasa Alert Level two tayo ngayon. So, when could be the time na you’re going to say na, now we have to enforce itong evacuation talaga of all the Filipinos?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: Yesterday’s meeting said there seems to be a lull. Hindi umiinit lalo ‘yung situasyon. But, again, that will have to be—hindi naman siguro minute by minute—but that will have to depend on the assessment of our ambassador there, who is the lead person on the ground. He, I think, is on his way to Benghazi at this point in time to asses the situation. Again, ‘yung Tripoli and Benghazi are in opposite ends of the country.

Aytch Dela Cruz [Daily Tribune]: Sir, given the violent protests sa Libya, may recommendation na daw po ba ‘yung Palace or the DFA to suspend ties with Libya due to the violent crackdown by Gaddafi against the protesters? Because Peru just did; and considering that the Philippines is a strong advocate of human rights, does Manila denounce Gaddafi’s violent crackdown?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: Maski papaano, we still have to deal with the government in place to save further OFWs. This would not be the time to break relations with them, or increase the tensions they are already undergoing. Baka naman pag-initan pa ‘yung ating mga kababayan doon? First duty of the government is to protect our citizens.

Rowena Dela Fuente [Net 25]: Good afternoon, sir. Just a clarification: you showed us earlier the map. Have you decided kung saan po talaga ‘yung magiging point of exit if ever magkaroon talaga ng evacuation?

PRESIDENT AQUINO: ‘Yung sa “have decided:” I will not ask our people in Benghazi to travel the breadth of Libya to go to Tunisia for instance. Siyempre, kung ano ‘yung closest area. We’re working on both Tunisia and Egypt as the primary points of exit. Now, if it’s possible also, we are also talking to a shipping company, na—at medyo ‘yung cost is also quite exorbitant; it’s about a million Euros—kung sakaling kakailanganin to bring them to Malta, which is another nearby area. It really depends on where they are grouping together. Ano ba ang closest to exit Libya, and get away from the violence that is happening there.

Thank you.