ELLIE ABEN MANILA: The Philippines on Monday banned its citizens from traveling to work in Kuwait and began the repatriation of more than 10,000 Filipinos already there.
The move comes amid widespread anger over the death of Joanna Daniela Demafelis, whose body was found last week inside a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait that had been abandoned by her employers in 2016.
Last month the Philippines suspended processing overseas employment certificates for Kuwait pending investigation into the deaths there of another seven Filipino domestic workers.
The new ban has been ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte, covers all skilled and domestic workers and takes effect immediately, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said on Monday.
Duterte has said before that he was considering a ban after reports of ill-treatment and sexual abuse of Filipino workers in Kuwait. He conceded that the Philippines benefited from their remittances, but said he would not allow overseas workers to “endure rape, starvation, and other forms of abuse at the hands of their employers.”
Last week Duterte accepted an invitation to visit Kuwait next month. “I guess Kuwait wants to assure the president that Philippine nationals are protected,” said presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
Bello told Arab News he expected the signing of a long-delayed agreement to provide provide legal protection for Filipino workers in Kuwait would be on the agenda for the visit.
However, the day after the visit was confirmed, Demafelis’ body was found. It bore signs of torture and death by strangulation, and is thought to have been in the freezer for more than a year. Her employers, a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife, are under investigation.
At an emotional press conference in Davao City last Friday, Duterte said: “When will this inhuman treatment of our Filipino workers end? When will the upliftment of their human dignity begin? To the Kuwaiti government and all others where our people work, we seek and expect your assistance in this regard.
“The Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere. Every unlawful physical injury that is inflicted is an injury I personally bear as the head of this republic.”
“Every abuse committed is an affront against us, as a sovereign nation,” and he was “ready to take drastic steps that will help preserve Filipino life and limb.”
The Philippine Embassy and the overseas labor office in Kuwait said they were rushing to repatriate more than 10,000 Filipinos who qualify under a Kuwaiti government amnesty. They include those who have overstayed their visas, and runaways who allege abuse by their employers.
So far, 2,229 have been given travel documents, and 1,754 have received immigration clearance.
An initial group of 377 arrived in the Philippines on three commercial flights on Sunday. A further 240 are due on Tuesday, and 250 more on Wednesday.
There are at least 250,000 Filipino workers officially in Kuwait, and about 50,000 more are undocumented. There were 82 reported deaths of Filipino workers in Kuwait in 2016, and the figure is thought to have increased last year.