06/27/2020, 08.00
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Church and NGO call for investigation into the deaths of hundreds of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia

At least 353 migrants are dead. For the Philippine ambassador in Riyadh, most died of "natural causes,” a few from COVID-19. He mocks workers' poverty. The Bishop of Balanga wants to know what really happened to them. NGO complains that Christians are discriminated in access to medical treatment.

Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A Philippine bishop and a migrant rights organisation are calling for an investigation into the recent death of more than 350 Philippine workers in Saudi Arabia.

According to the Philippine ambassador in Riyadh, Adnan Alonto, 353 Philippines died in the country as of last Monday, of which at least 200 must be brought home.

Most died of natural cause, he said; “only a few deaths [are] related to coronavirus,” plus “a few crime-related deaths”.

The Catholic Church and an NGO are not convinced and want to know more. Migrants face serious difficulties in the region, as evidenced by the suicide of a young Philippine woman in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia is a major point of destination for Philippine migrants; up to a million live and work in the kingdom, often in precarious conditions, victims of abuse and harassment by their Muslim employers.

Job insecurity, non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, physical assault and sexual violence are among the recurrent issues, but they are rarely reported.

The death of hundreds of people in a short period of time has raised suspicions that the Philippine Church wants investigated.

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga head the Commission for Migrants and itinerant people of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). He is not certain that most of the deaths are due to natural causes.

“There should be an investigation for the specific causes of death to prevent and avoid future loss of life,” he said in a statement.

Migrante International, an alliance of NGOs defending the rights of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), agrees with the prelate, and does not mince words for the way the Philippine Embassy in Saudi Arabia has tackled the issue.

According to its spokesman, Francisco Buenaventura, the families of “deceased Philippine 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.”

Saudi Arabia is the country most affected by COVID-19 in the Gulf region. For the activist, Philippine workers who test positive for COVID-19 are not treated because of their faith.

“Christians and Muslims must receive the medical attention needed for our workers to recover from the virus,” he said.  “Our nurses are taking care of Muslim patients,” but this does not happen to Christians. What is more, only Islam is allowed to be practised in the country.

In addition to unexplained deaths, another issue is that of migrants who want to return home but are unable to do so.

According to the latest unofficial figures, at least 23,000 Philippine workers have appealed to their government to help them get home. Since they were laid off, they have been without work for months, scrounging for some food among Riyadh rubbish.

Ambassador Alonso denies this version. “If reports reaching me are true, I’m disappointed with some of our people who have resorted to theatrics to catch attention. [The] Fact is food assistance was given. Mamulot ng basura? [Picking up trash?] C’mon!” he twitted.

Migrante International reacted immediately. “He can say what he said because he still has his job and continues to receive his huge salary,” said Marlon Gatdula, Migrante’s Saudi Arabia chair.

“If Alonto had tried to live for three months with the one-time assistance given to OFWs, he would know that OFWs scavenging for food are not merely engaging in theatrics or are just trying to call the public’s attention.”

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