By Vatican News
A Filipino bishop and an overseas organization of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are demanding the truth behind the recent deaths of more than 350 expatriates in the Arab kingdom.
Adnan Alonto, the Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said on June 22 that there were at least 353 corpses of Filipino workers, 200 of which needed to be brought back to the Philippines.
He said, “They died of natural causes mostly. There were only a few deaths related to coronavirus.” There were a few-crime related deaths. But most of the non-Covid-related deaths are due to natural causes,” the ambassador said in an interview.
However, Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, head of the Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), is not convinced that most of the deaths were due to natural causes.
He suspects there is “something wrong with the whole picture” that deserves immediate attention by the government to safeguard Filipino workers’ rights in the Middle East.
“There should be an investigation for the specific causes of death to prevent and avoid future loss of life,” Bishop Santos said in a statement.
Migrante International, an alliance of OFW organizations that fights for the rights and welfare of Philippine overseas workers, has also called for more transparent reporting and data gathering from the Philippine embassy in Saudi Arabia.
“The relatives of our deceased Filipino workers deserve to know the cause of death of their loved ones. The government cannot simply say they died due to natural causes. There must be medical records to support the claim,” Migrante International spokesman Francisco Buenaventura told UCA News.
Bueventura also spoke out against alleged discrimination suffered by Filipino medical workers in hospitals or health facilities in the Middle East.
He said he had received reports that Filipinos who tested positive for Covid-19 were not prioritized because of their religious affiliation.
“Christians and Muslims,” he said, “must receive the medical attention needed for our workers to recover from the virus.” “Our nurses are taking care of Muslim patients. May they also get the kind of medical attention they deserve,” he added.
The Philippine ambassador said Saudi health and foreign affairs officials have assured him there is no discrimination or triaging in hospitals and clinics based on religion or ethnicity. Their facilities are full, he said, adding that Indian and Bangladeshi embassies have also had the same experience.
Ambassador Alonto earlier said that Saudi Arabia had ordered that Covid-related victims be buried in the Gulf state within 72 hours from the time the embassy or consulate was informed about the deaths.
Bishop Santos opposed the arrangement saying it is proper that the remains of the deceased Filipinos should be brought back home so their loved ones can pay them their last respects.
“We, Filipinos, have high respect for the dead. We honour the dead. They are sacred to us. It is just and proper to give them a proper, dignified burial,” he added.
Alonto cited the Saudi government's rules that the bodies needed to be buried since morgues are full to capacity.
Bishop Santos has asked the Philippine government to help the families of the deceased OFWs.
The Philippine economy depends heavily on remittances from overseas Filipino workers OFWs. Last year, migrant workers sent a record $33.5 billion, or about 9 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. That was 3.9% higher than the $32.2 billion recorded in 2018.
This year, the Philippines stands to lose up to $6 billion in remittances, or 20 per cent, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already rendered some 400,000 OFWs jobless.
Senator Joel Villanueva, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labour, Employment, and Human Resources Development urged the government on Tuesday to take urgent action to help nearly 50,000 stranded OFWs who have already been repatriated. The government must help them find an alternative source of income, the senator said.