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MANILA, Philippines - Resources of the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) are being stretched to the limit as it continues to find ways to bring Filipinos home from war-torn countries including Syria and Afghanistan.
And its resources may be stretched even further.
The department now it has to prepare for another possible conflict: Iran. In an exclusive interview with News5, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario admitted while the agency has its hands full coping with crises, it must proceed with rationalizing its operations, including closing down 10 embassies and consulates.
He emphasized the closures will not compromise their mission to help Filipinos. "It isn’t correct to say we have neglected our people," Del Rosario stressed.
The Foreign Affairs chief said he, along with the DFA team, was set to leave on another rescue mission last week – this time to Afghanistan.
But the mission was scrapped when the team lost its security force. They were going to rescue some 5,000 filipino workers in Afghanistan following the upsurge of violence due to the burning of the Koran by US soldiers.
Attacks on US and foreign forces in Afghanistan spiked following the incident and US President Obama had to publicly apologize for the incident in effort to stem the violence.
Del Rosario said the Filipino workers were employed by various contract agencies working with US and foreign governments. As they were about to leave, they learned that NATO forces, that was supposed to provide security, was withdrawn.
“There has been violence that has been escalating, we understand the NATO people had been pulled back so it was NATO that was supposed to provide us with security,” he said. “So now, we need to take a second look.”
He explained the plan is for the Filipinos to be evacuated over land.
Team stationed outside Homs in Syria
As for Syria, Del Rosario said a PNP-DFA-DOLE team is now stationed outside Homs, scene of the most intense fighting between pro-Assad and rebel forces.
"Every time we try to go in, we get bounced out. They are waiting for a humanitarian corridor to be established so they can go in and get these guys out," he said. "We are waiting for it to happen, the UN is supposed to be arranging for it but it seems that instead of getting better, its getting worse."
The DFA estimates that there are between 16,000 and 20,000 Filipinos in Syria, 95 percent of which are undocumented.
Some 7,000 workers have registered with the Philippine embassy in Damascus and over a thousand have been repatriated. Another 400 to 500 workers have signed up for repatriation.
Del Rosario recounted that if an undocumented worker opts to leave, it is not simple action of picking them up and putting them on a plane. Most of the undocumented workers are household service workers.
"We have to go to each employer to be able to negotiate their contracts, we have to pay them off and buy out their contract, that’s number 1. Then because they are undocumented, we have to go to immigration and pay the penalty because they are overstaying or they don’t have the right papers," Del Rosario explained.
Only when these are resolved can the DFA buy them a plane ticket.
"I think the average cost to repatriate per person is in the neighborhood of $2,500, that is a lot of money, so the government is paying for this," he said. "Our problem has been exacerbated by the fact that certain areas are no man's land. It is a challenge to get the people out of Syria."
The DFA Secretary, who once served as Philippine Ambassador to the US, notes their budget is "strained" but fortunately Malacanang is there to help them out.
Del Rosario admits the government is now keeping an eye on the growing tensions between Iran, Israel, and the United States over Teheran’s insistence to develop nuclear weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had recently said Israel will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, noting that the Iranian government had called for the eradication of the Jewish state.
Del Rosario has ordered a review of contingency plans for the less than one thousand Filipinos in Iran, including the possibility of advising some of them to voluntarily leave.
"We are reviewing our contingency plans to ensure that we can get our people out quickly," he said. "We are reviewing now whether a crisis level that is appropriate should already be applied to Iran."
Del Rosario also said the department is finding a way to ensure that "thirty percent of the Philippines' banana exports to Iran" is not "jeopardized."
In 2010, total Philippine export to Iran amounted to $59.92 million comprised of bananas, food, and consumer products.
Scaledown in some countries, beefing up in others
Del Rosario used the crisis in the Middle East as an argument for the DFA’s decision to shut down its embassies in Palau, Venezuela, Ireland, Sweden, Cuba, Romania and Finland as well as its consultates in Barcelona, Spain; Frankfurt, Germany and Saipan.
“We intend to look at areas where we can scale down so that we could take the savings there and are able to put it in areas that have a greater need or area that have a greater potential to move the country forward,” he said.
“In the Middle East, for example, we have a great number of people there that we have to pay attention to,” Del Rosario said. He added the closures were based on the review of the DFA’s three pillars of foreign policy, namely: promoting national security, enhancing economic diplomacy, and protecting Filipinos.
He admits many have criticized and questioned the closures, as there is a large Filipino community in the affected countries. "At the end of the day, we will be stronger, our job is to have a leaner, meaner, smarter organization and that is what we are working towards," Del Rosario said.