By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Migrante International’s chapter in the Middle East is demanding to know why no one is heading the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) Migrant Workers Affairs division. Migrante-ME said no one has yet replaced Esteban Conejos who used to stand as the division’s undersecretary.
On February 2012, President Benigno Aquino III reassigned Conejos, as the country’s permanent representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The following March, Conejos appointment to the WTO was unanimously approved by the Commission on Appointments, with a rank of Chief of Mission, Class 1 in the roll of officers of the DFA.
John Leonard Monterona, regional coordinator of MME, said that since Conejos appointment has been approved, the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) was left with no one in charge. He said that since Conejos left, there was no one left directly and immediately responsible for running the legal assistance program and services of the DFA.
The DFA’s OUMWA performs vital functions for the provision and over-all coordination of all legal assistance services to Filipino Migrant Workers as well as Overseas Filipinos in distress as stated in the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) (Sec.1, Rule IX) of the amended Migrant Workers Act or RA10022.
Sec.2, Rule IX of the RA10022 IRR, in the meantime, states the qualification of the person who will head the OUMWA and the appointing authority: “The Legal Assistant for Migrant Workers Affairs shall be headed by a lawyer of proven competence in the field of law with at least ten (10) years experience as a legal practitioner and who must not have been a candidate to an elective office in the last local or national elections. He/she shall be appointed by the President of the Philippines.
“We could not understand why up to now now, 5 months after the post was vacated, no one has been assigned to head the OUMWA. It is developments like this that help explain why the legal assistance program and services of the government for distressed OFWs is such a failure,” Monterona pointed out.
During a House budget hearings, DFA secretary Albert Del Rosario confirmed that P52.2 million ($1.23 million) of the legal assistance fund under the care of his department remained unspent. He added that only P7.78 million ($185 thousand ) was used.
The DFA chief also revealed that only 196 overseas workers had availed themselves of the fund from 2011 to August 2012.
“So, it’s really no surprise that the DFA-OUMWA failed to implement an effective and efficient legal assistance program and services to distressed OFWs primarily because nobody was in charge; there was no one at the helm to implement the duties of the office,” Monterona said.
The OFW leader said Del Rosario should at the least submit a list of nominees for Aquino’s consideration, “So that the latter could immediately appoint and fill the vacant position that is of importance to us, OFWs, especially to thousands of distressed OFWs.”
“We urge Aquino to immediately appoint a person with the same qualities of the late Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) sec. Jesse Robredo. Seeing that this might prove very difficult, at least Aquino should appoint someone who would deliver honest-to-goodness public service and has genuine concern for the plight of OFWs,” Monterona said. “Hopefully it won’t be someone like Conejos who performed poorly during his term.”
More funds for the legal services program for OFWs
Previously, Migrante had a beef with the DFA after Del Rosario said that only 196 overseas workers had availed themselves of the fund from 2011 to August 2012. The official made the declaration as part of his argument that the DFA had been successful in attending to the legal needs of OFWs.
Monterona immediately countered the official’s statement saying that the legal assistance program and the administration of a corresponding fund allotted for the purpose was under-utilized.
“There’s always a significant number of distressed OFWs needing legal assistance at any time. The DFA’s legal fund must be utilized to ensure that the agency provides effective and efficient services to distressed OFWs who are facing charges and those who have filed cases seeking relief. Obviously, it’s not a question of whether there’s money or not. It’s a question of a properly allotted government fund not being fully and efficiently utilized. The fact that the DFA was only able to help a small number of OFW proves that its legal assistance program was a failure and not a success,” he said.
Monterona argued that every time relatives of distressed OFWs go to DFA-OUMWA to ask for legal assistance, they are more often than not told that there’s no fund to help them with legal cases. Worse, many OFWs are turned away, told that they do not qualify for legal assistance.
He cited for instance the request of the kin of OFWs on death row in Saudi Arabia.
“As far as our monitoring goes, there are eight of them on death row, aside from more than a thousand others in in jail charged for petty crimes, others victims of trumped up charges. All of them plead for legal assistance, asking to be given lawyers who would defend and represent them in court. We do not know if all their requests for legal assistance are granted; as far as we know, they’ were not.”
“Granting that there is limitation imposed by the law on the amount to be used depending on the nature of legal assistance asked, the DFA should have long been recommended the amendment of that provision of the Migrant Workers Act,” he explained.
The migrant leader said the Migrant Workers Act does not specifically impose limitations on the amount of legal assistance, it is rather its implementing rules and regulations (IRR) that was crafted and subsequently approved by the DFA and other concerned agencies involved in the crafting of the IRR.
He, however, agreed with the DFA chief’s proposal to review the limitations on the amount of funds to be used. He said that this must be on the top to-do list of the department.
“The primary issue here is to ensure that efficient and effective legal aid is given to all OFWs who need it. The legal fund must be utilized fully. Migrante International has long been campaigning for bigger allocations for the legal services of the DFA and its embassies and consultations so that more OFWs can be helped,” Monterona concluded.