By Daniel Llanto
Amid the rising tension between Iran and the United States, President Duterte instructed Congress and the Finance department to prepare funds for the “huge, gargantuan” repatriation of Filipinos in the whole Middle East.
Speaking after he signed the PHP4.1-trillion budget for 2020, Duterte called for emergency funding and measures to secure the lives of Filipinos in the Middle East in light of escalating tensions between the US and Iran.
“I am afraid for the so many lives of our countrymen in jeopardy,” said Duterte. “I am nervous. Iran seems to be hell-bent on a retaliation, which I think will come. It’s a matter of time.”
“I do not have anything, nary a worry, were it not for the fact that there are a lot of Filipinos there… We need the money. I need it before it actually starts,” he added.
Tension between the US and Iran escalated after a US drone strike killed military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday and the attack took long-running hostilities between Washington and Tehran into uncharted territory and raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.
“We do not know what will be the end result of this crisis. It could lead to war; it could be a wide-scale strife. Whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in great peril,” Duterte said.
The President also appealed to Congress to hold a special session to discuss the effects of the escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington, which he called an “evolving crisis.”
Duterte a day before met with his top security officials and asked the military to prepare aircraft and ships for the possible repatriation of Filipinos in the Middle East.
In that meeting, Duterte also directed the military to prepare for the evacuation of thousands of Filipinos in Iran and Iraq should tensions flare in the Middle East.
Department of National Defense (DND) spokesman Arsenio Andolong said the President had called Santos, Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana, Philippine National Police OIC Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa and the commanding generals of the Army, Air Force and Navy to that emergency meeting in Malacañang.
Andolong said the Palace meeting’s sole agenda “was how to insure the safety of our countrymen in the Middle East especially those in Iraq and Iran as tension between the US and Iran rises.”
There are about 1,600 Filipinos in Iraq and 6,000 in Iran, Andolong said.
He said Duterte had directed the Philippine military to prepare all aerial and naval assets “to evacuate and bring home our countrymen if and when open hostilities erupt in the Middle East that may endanger their lives.”
Soleimani was a key figure in spreading the influence of Iran in the Middle East. But he was also accused of masterminding terrorist operations in the region and had long been marked for assassination by the US.
Iran has vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death and US President Donald Trump has warned that the US would respond to any retaliatory act.
House Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate condemned the killing of the Iranian general, saying the volatile situation could affect the country’s overseas workers and oil prices.
Zarate said the “ill-considered action is emblematic of US imperialist terrorism and blatant disregard for the sovereignty of other countries.”
The escalation of tension could put at risk at least two million overseas Filipino workers in the Gulf countries, reduce remittances if they were to be repatriated and eventually lead to a downtrend in the Philippines’ Gross National Product, Zarate said.
The escalating tension could affect oil prices in the country, House Deputy Speaker Michael Romero also said as he urged the government to suspend the excise tax on fuels “at the right time” to cushion any inflationary impact.