Philippines braces to evacuate workers in Iraq, Iran

MANILA, PHILIPPINES (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to prepare to deploy its aircraft and ships “at any moment’s notice” to evacuate thousands of Filipino workers in Iraq and Iran should violence break out, reflecting Asia’s growing fears for its citizens in the increasingly volatile Middle East.

Other Asian nations with large populations of expatriate labour may face similar decisions amid the rapidly escalating tensions between the United States (US) and Iran following last week’s US airstrike that killed Iranian top General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

South Korean government have discussed strengthening protections for the nearly 1,900 South Koreans in Iraq and Iran. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said India wasn’t planning to evacuate any citizens from the volatile region “yet”. Duterte held an emergency meeting with his defence secretary and top military and police officials last Sunday to discuss the evacuation plans.

“President Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to be prepared to deploy military assets to repatriate overseas Filipinos in the Middle East, particularly from Iran and Iraq, at any moment’s notice,” said Senator Christopher Lawrence Go.

Duterte expressed fears yesterday that the Philippines may have to carry out massive evacuations if violence hits Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia that host large numbers of Filipino workers.

Protesters take part in a rally in front of the US embassy in Manila. PHOTO: AFP

“I’m nervous. Iran seems to be bent on a retaliation, which I think will come. It’s a matter of time … the cry for blood is there,” Duterte said. He urged Congress to hold a special session on the impact of a possible crisis in the Middle East and set aside contingency funds.

Iran has vowed to retaliate and US President Donald Trump warned that US forces would hit back at 52 Iranian targets if Americans come under attack. Iraq’s Parliament has also called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, which could revive the Islamic State group in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

Compounding contingency plans is the uncertainty where hostilities could possibly break out.

Philippines Military Chief of Staff Lt General Felimon Santos Jr said Philippine forces have identified possible evacuation routes not only in Iraq and Iran but other hotspots, like Israel.

“There are probabilities like that and we are improving our plans just to cover everything just in case something happens,” Santos told reporters in Manila.

Other countries face similar dilemmas. Asians make up 40 per cent of the world’s migrants, and Middle Eastern countries are a common destination. African migrants are also employed around the Middle East, though the possibility of their home countries arranging evacuations is uncertain.

Arab states are home to more than seven million Indian expatriates who help drive the region’s economy and keep its cities teeming with doctors, engineers, teachers, drivers, construction workers and other labourers. In United Arab Emirates, Indians outnumber Emiratis three to one.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday that government agencies had discussed preparations for an escalating crisis in the Middle East but had no immediate plans for evacuations.