MALTA INTERNATIONAL Airport—Stuffed toys, some random items like a guitar and an audio speaker, and laundry—these were all that they had when they got here after fleeing strife-torn Libya.
They had no money.
From Benghazi and Misrata, 767 Filipino migrant workers converged here on Saturday, children and luggage in tow to catch a flight to Manila—and safety, at least from getting caught in the crossfire between militias fiercely battling for control of the North African country.
As for survival at home after Libya, that’s a different story.
The Filipinos accepted their government’s offer of repatriation and they were evacuated to Malta by sea, the only way out of Libya after the closure of the international airport at the capital Tripoli and the border crossings to neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
The sea crossing on a Maltese ship chartered by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) took 28 hours and a 12-hour flight to Manila on two Philippine Airlines planes awaited the weary Filipinos here.
It was the only evacuation that the government was undertaking for now, according to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, because only a few hundred of the more than 13,000 Filipino workers in Libya were willing to leave their jobs there.
More than 10,000 Filipino workers, at least 3,000 of them health-care professionals, have decided they have better chances of survival amid the fighting in Libya than in the Philippines, where there are no jobs, the DFA said.
Foreign Undersecretary Jesus Yabes chartered the ship, which could carry 1,200 people, to ferry the evacuees to Malta. And he was at Malta International Airport to welcome the Filipinos when they arrived.
At the airport, while waiting for their plane to be refueled, Dario Herradura, Nicolas Dumag Jr. and Manuel Lasin said they were coming home with nothing but their clothes and the few belongings they acquired from seven months of work building the New Bregah Hospital in the port city of Bregah.
No law in Libya
Dumag said the workers there had not been paid for the past three months by the construction company because the banks were closed due to the fighting.
“There is no law in Libya,” Dumag said, adding that the construction site and the workers’ dormitory had become targets for robbers and stoning by Libyan youth.
Lasin said he and another Filipino were stoned by Libyan youngsters when they stepped out recently to buy food. He was not hurt but his friend was hit by a stone, he said.
It was that kind of danger and having to work without knowing when they would be paid that forced the three men and 14 other Filipino coworkers to sign up for repatriation.
On Aug. 9, they were picked up by staff members from the Philippine Embassy in Tripoli at their workplace and taken to a school operated by the Red Crescrent in the eastern city of Benghazi.
They said they would have stayed if they were regularly paid their $600 monthly salaries. But unable to send money to their families at home for three months and learning that the Philippine government’s repatriation offer was just a one-shot deal, they signed up for repatriation.
Lasin, 40, said he didn’t have even a dollar to bring home, just his laundry.
A Filipino nurse who identified herself as Maureen said most of the Filipinos who decided to stay in Libya were just waiting to be paid their salaries and benefits and they, too, would go home.
Like the hospital construction workers in Bregah, Maureen and eight other Filipino nurses from Benghazi Children’s Hospital were told by their employers that they could not pay them because the banks were closed.
All 10 nurses who left the hospital were new hires and had been on the job for only three months.
Another nurse, a 34-year-old who gave her name only as Lovely, said she decided to leave not only because she was not getting paid but also because of the escalating violence in Benghazi.
She said she got the scare of her life recently. She left the hospital after work and was walking to her dorm when a Libyan boy, who was about 14 years old, stepped into her path, pointed a gun at her and pulled the trigger.
The gun did not go off. Either it jammed or was unloaded.
“I was really scared and traumatized,” Lovely said.
There were about 60 other Filipino nurses in the hospital, she said, and they, too, wanted to go home but could not because they had not been paid.
She said some Libyan nurses in the hospital had been urging the Filipino nurses to stay, saying the situation would get better. But she said she had had enough and just wanted to go home to her family.
Really bad situation
Nurse Edson Clarito, 25, said he and 74 other nurses from Hawari General Hospital in Benghazi decided to leave because the fighting was too close to their dormitory there.
“All of us decided not to complete our two-year contracts, which would expire in six months, because of the situation,” Clarito, an emergency nurse, said.
“The situation is really bad, whether in our residence, in the hospital, or in the streets,” he said.
Clarito’s group lived near Budayma district, which was occupied by Islamist militias whom Libyan government forces were trying to flush out.
Another nurse who identified himself as Franco said hospital security men abandoned their posts, leaving the hospital vulnerable to attack. But the hospital administration did not seem to care anymore, he said.
Clarito said he and his group sent a letter to their supervisor authorizing him to collect for them their almost two months’ unpaid salaries.
Nurse Lovely said her priority when she gets home was to claim her benefits from the Overseas Employment Administration (Owwa) and from her recruitment agency.
She said she needed to get whatever benefits she could now that she has no job.
Owwa welfare officer Mario Antonio said 419 Filipinos boarded the first PAL charter flight to leave Malta on Saturday. It was expected to arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) in Manila at 11 p.m. on Saturday.
He said more than 300 boarded the second PAL charter flight, which would arrive at Naia at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday.
The second flight was supposed to carry 356 passengers, but one, who arrived in Malta with the other evacuees, could not be found up to departure time.
The plane left without Rodrigo Andres, although his name appeared on the manifest.
Owwa welfare officer Mario Antonio said Andres checked in his luggage but did not board the plane.
Maltese airport authorities searched for Andres but failed to find him, Antonio said.
The search for Andres delayed the plane’s departure for 40 minutes. The flight left after unloading his luggage.