Asian workers caught in a bind as Middle East tensions soar

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It was early on Wednesday when the music at a bar near the United States consulate in Erbil abruptly stopped.

“They suddenly shut down all the … establishments still open at that time, and ordered us all to leave immediately,” recalled Mark, a Filipino migrant worker who asked to be identified only by his first name for safety concerns.

A commotion ensued, with people running towards every direction, Mark said. Meanwhile, at a military facility nearby, alarms rang out to warn of an impending attack.

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Iran on Wednesday launched missiles at bases in Iraq hosting US troops in retaliation for the assassination last week of its top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, near Baghdad’s international airport. Washington said Tehran fired 16 short-range ballistic missiles, with at least 11 striking Ain al-Assad airbase in Anbar province and one hitting a facility in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

As he hurried back to his apartment, about five minutes drive from the facility, Mark’s immediate thought was how he and other Filipino workers could escape the violence.

He immediately bundled his backpack and alerted other Filipinos to get ready. Then he realised, they had nowhere to go.

Despite an earlier request for guidance, Philippine embassy officials in Baghdad have failed to provide them with information such as where to assemble in case of an evacuation order, Mark said.

Iraq - Soleimani

The assassination of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad has triggered fears of a wider conflict in the Middle East region [Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP]

The assassination of Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes have created many unintended consequences, including the prospect of mass evacuation of millions of migrant workers in the Middle East.

The Philippines and Indonesia are among the leading exporters of human labour in Southeast Asia, deploying tens of thousands of migrant workers to the Middle East every year.

There are an estimated 1.2-2 million Filipino workers in the Middle East, almost half of whom are in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, there are as many as 1.2 million Indonesians in the region, with most working in the kingdom, according to the Jakarta labour advocacy group, Migrant Care.

Order to evacuate

Amid the escalation in tensions and insecurity across the region, Manila and Jakarta are scrambling to figure out how to safely bring their citizens home.

Interviews conducted by Al Jazeera with several migrant workers based in different Middle Eastern countries paint a picture of evacuation plans in disarray, or virtually non-existent.

On Thursday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte created a taskforce to coordinate the government’s evacuation plan. A day earlier, he had ordered a mandatory evacuation of all Filipino workers in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, only to be contradicted by his own labour secretary, who on Thursday said the order only covers Iraq.

There are an estimated 30,000 Filipinos in Lebanon; some 6,000 in Iraq; and another 1,600 in Iran.

In an earlier exchange on social media, Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin had assured Al Jazeera that a repatriation plan was in place.

Duterte’s special representative to the Middle East, Roy Cimatu, a former general, was dispatched to Baghdad on Thursday to lead the evacuation there.

As of Wednesday, there were already 1,592 Filipinos, out of 6,000, who signed up for immediate repatriation, Cimatu said, adding that gradual evacuation had already started right after Soleimani’s killing.

In a video posted online, Vice Consul Jomar Sadie, officer in charge at the Philippine embassy in Baghdad, also said that Filipinos in Iraq, including those in its Kurdish region, “are assured that the Philippine government is prepared to repatriate” them.

Failed contingency plan

Mark, the Filipino migrant worker who witnessed the chaos in Erbil, however, said embassy officials in Baghdad “failed to provide [a] basic contingency plan” for them.

“They know that there are a lot of us working here. But they did not bother to provide any information as to where we can assemble for pick up, or if they have transportation available,” Mark said.

Filipino workers

Every year, the Philippines deploys tens of the thousands of Filipino workers in the Middle East [File: Rolex dela Pena/EPA]

“I called the other Filipinos in Erbil, and they also told me that they don’t know where to go.”

Rolando Antisoda, another Filipino working in Erbil, was also critical of Philippine government officials, expressing frustration at the lack of “quick response” from embassy officials.

“Even a simple phone call, it takes them forever to answer.”

In an interview with ABS-CBN television network, Sunshine, a Filipino manicurist who works in Baghdad, said she “does not trust” embassy officials there to help them.

She said she and 60 other Filipino employees were prevented by their company to evacuate until they pay $8,000 each to their employer.

Al Jazeera contacted Vice Consul Jomar Sadie for his response, but he did not pick up the call. Al Jazeera managed to contact the embassy’s Administrative Officer Jerome F Friaz, but he declined to comment and directed all queries to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.

Another Filipino diplomat, not assigned in the Middle East, insisted to Al Jazeera in a private message that there is always a contingency plan, but officials are careful in releasing information to avoid “panic” and “paranoia” among the affected Filipinos.

At the Philippine embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, which was included in Duterte’s original order of mandatory evacuation, more than 1,000 Filipinos, mostly women and some with children, showed up on Thursday to sign up for free repatriation. But it is unclear if they will be evacuated after it was announced that the alert level in Lebanon was downgraded.

Eljean Ello, a domestic worker in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that she and her fellow workers never received word from embassy officials and that they only heard about Duterte’s announcement from the news.

Filipinos in Iran also told Al Jazeera that while they received an alert from the embassy, there was no mention of an evacuation.

‘We are safe here’

Meanwhile, Indonesian migrant worker Rajis Khana, who lives in Mecca, told Al Jazeera he had never heard from the Indonesian consulate about the latest escalation in the region but said he was confident that the tension would not affect Saudi Arabia.

“Mecca is safe because it’s the holy city. Also, it’s far from Iraq,” he said.

Rajis, who has been working as a driver in the Gulf for 12 years, said other migrant workers shared the same sentiment.

In 2015, Jakarta banned the deployment of women workers to 21 Middle Eastern countries. By 2018, the country announced that it was poised to lift the ban. Deployment of male workers, meanwhile, has been going on for decades. 

Workers - Indonesia

Most of the 1.2 million Indonesians migrant workers in the Middle East are employed in Saudi Arabia [File: Mast Irham/EPA]

Wahyu Susilo, executive director of Migrant Care, warned that if the conflict escalates, Indonesian President Joko Widodo might be forced to also order the evacuation of the more than 1.2 million workers in the Middle East.

So far, the Indonesian government has not ordered an evacuation. 

Wahyu said there are as many as 10,000 Indonesian migrants working in Iraq, and most of them are “undocumented”.

Migrant Care urged the Indonesian government to immediately register the workers, and possibly establish a crisis centre to handle a possible influx.

“If it’s too ambitious to fly them back, the best thing that Indonesia can do is to open a crisis centre,” Wahyu said.

Al Jazeera has reached out to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizsyah, but he has not responded to the request at the time of publication.

In Tehran, the Indonesian embassy issued a letter urging its citizens to take precautions.

“Avoid places which are crowded or prone to conflict as well as places suspected to be targets. Only bring necessary items and prioritise your and your family’s safety in the event of an evacuation,” the embassy said in a statement posted on the foreign ministry’s website.

In a separate statement published on the Antara News website, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said it is prepared to evacuate Indonesian citizens in Iran.

“We are ready, so everything is completed,” she said. There are 400 Indonesians living in Iran, while there are 800 officially residing in Iraq. It is unclear why the evacuation order only covers Iran.

As for Rolando Antisoda, one of the Filipinos working in Erbil, he told Al Jazeera that he will likely defy Duterte’s mandatory evacuation order.

“It is better for us to face threats of incoming missiles than let our families back home go hungry. If we go home, how are we going to feed them?”

With additional reporting by Febriana Firdaus in Indonesia

Asian workers caught in a bind as Middle East tensions soar

It was early on Wednesday when the music at a bar near the United States consulate in Erbil abruptly stopped. “They suddenly shut down all the … establishments still open at that time, and ordered us all to leave immediately,” recalled Mark, a Filipino migrant worker who asked to be identified only by his first name for safety concerns.

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