In the afternoon of Aug. 14, the Saudi police raided the safehouse of the migrant NGO Kapatiran sa Gitnang Silangan and arrested and detained 18 Filipinos, including several runaway OFWs. Their crime? They violated a Saudi law that forbids unrelated men and women from living together.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – The Kapatiran sa Gitnang Silangan is a nongovernment organization based in Saudi Arabia that helps overseas Filipino workers. It provides assistance, counseling and, in several instances, opens its safehouse to distressed OFWs – mostly victims of maltreatment and abuse by their employers — who have no one else to turn to.
In the afternoon of Aug. 14, the Saudi police raided the group’s safehouse while KGS leaders were holding their weekly dialogues and counseling to OFWs. Their crime? They violated a Saudi law that forbids unrelated men and women from living together.
At the time of the raid, distressed OFWs had sought refuge at the KGS safehouse. Out of the 18 leaders and members of KGS and OFWs who were arrested and detained, only six were released. The others remain in prison as of press time and are afraid that they would soon be deported to the Philippines.
“When has it become a crime to advise others who are in need?” the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, a nongovernment group, asked in a statement after the raid.
Former Kapatiran sa Gitnang Silangan (KGS-Migrante) chairman Mario Ben (left) and Mike Garlan, KGS-M secretary-general (right). At center is Bidang, KGS-M Committee on Rights and Welfare officer. The three were among those arrested by Saudi police. (Photo courtesy of Migrante International / bulatlat.com)
Migrante International’s Roy Anunciacion told Bulatlat that the KGS leaders knew that it is against the customary law of Saudi Arabia for people of opposite sex who are not related by blood to live together.
But these distressed OFWs did not have a choice, Anunciacion said. He cited what he called a “unified contract” signed in 2002 by then Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas and President Gloria Arroyo in 2002 that criminalized the act of escaping by a migrant worker from his or her employer, thus forbidding the Philippine embassy in Saudi Arabia from providing shelter to runaway OFWs.
Having no one else to turn to, these OFWs are forced to seek help from such groups as Migrante or the KGS. “This is why the KGS had to provide our runaway OFWs with a safehouse that they can take refuge in.” In the process, Anunciacion said, the OFWs and the KGS broke the law.
However, the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants expressed grave concern about the arrest and detention. “We maintain that escaping from an abusive situation is not a crime,” it said in a statement, “and those who offer helpful advice to them on what they can do should not also be treated as criminals.”
Monterona stressed that all of the members of the KGS who had been released were freed because their employers took custody of them. Mike Garlan, Lito Fedelino, Ronilo Reyes, Rustico Marcos, Rey Balagtas and three other women are still hoping that their employers would do the same.
In a short phone call on Aug. 20, KGS secretary-general Mike Garlan told Migrante Middle East coordinator John Monterona that since they are already detained for one week and their employers have yet to take custody of them, they might be brought to the Riyadh Deportation Center and be sent back to the Philippines.
KGS founding member Mario Ben, released last Aug. 20, said that the staff in the Philippine embassy had not been active in pressing their respective employers to take custody of the OFWs so they could be released in the soonest possible time.
Monterona has already sought the advice of the Human Rights Society of Saudi Arabia, a nongovernment organization advocating the promotion of human rights. They told him that the detained leaders and members of KGS can be released if the Philippine embassy can take custody of them even if the employers are reluctant to take them in.
“But when we suggested this to Vice Consul Roussel Reyes, who is handling this case, he didn’t give us a straight answer,” Monterona said. “This means that they are not capable or not willing to do so.”
The APMM said that many times in the past, the KGS has been the first to know the cases of abuses and was the one to often point out these abuses to the Philippine embassy for officials to respond accordingly.
Monterona said KGS has a long tradition of helping and providing assistance to OFWs in distress since it was founded in 1980. The safehouse of KGS has given refuge to Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East who have opted to escape their employers.
“Instead of criminalizing victims and those who help them, the root causes of why there are numerous migrants forced to run away must be addressed,” the APMM said. (Bulatlat.com)