MANILA – The pandemic did not stop the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) from advancing the rights and welfare of Filipino workers abroad with its strengthened campaign against kafala in 2021 and the continued repatriation of distressed nationals back home.
Looking back at DFA's key moments last year, Saudi Arabia was added to its growing list of partners as the latest country to introduce labor reform initiatives, benefiting the thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Kingdom.
"In 2021 lalong umigting iyong campaign natin against kafala. Naging partner na natin sa taong ito ang Saudi Arabia (In 2021, our campaign against kafala became stronger. We had Saudi Arabia as our new partner) because of their labor reform initiative and we are very, very blessed and we’re very happy that they trust us, the country of origin," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola said.
"The leadership of the Philippines, of course, is known all over the world dahil talagang sobrang lakas ng kampanya ni Pangulong Rodrigo Duterte para sa kalayaan and of course for the labor rights of the Filipino people (because President Rodrigo Duterte's push for the freedom and labor rights of Filipino people is strong). And I think the way that we repatriated and we also take care of our kababayans who returned to the Philippines is the gold standard for migrant protection," she added.
Latest data as of Dec. 31, 2021 showed that the DFA had also assisted in the repatriation of some 454,796 distressed Filipinos since the coronavirus crisis started in February 2020.
And among them were repatriates who were trafficked and sexually abused in Syria.
At the beginning of the year, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. himself vowed to bring home the distressed Filipinas as soon as possible, a promise fulfilled in June 2021. For the "first time in history", the shelter of the Philippine Embassy in Syria that month was fully emptied.
In the United States, DFA's foreign service posts also monitored and closely worked with local authorities to protect Filipinos amid the rise of attacks against Asian Americans because of Covid-19.
The Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. sent a note verbale to the State Department and the US Senate asking for increased protection of Asian descents, including Filipinos and Filipino-Americans.
One of the victims last year was Filipino-American Noel Quintana whose face was slashed with a boxcutter knife while on a morning commute in New York.
Another attack against 65-year old Fil-Am Vilma Kari in New York in March 2021 likewise sparked outrage among Filipinos, with Locsin himself saying the incident would "influence Philippine foreign policy". Kari, at the time, sustained serious injuries after her assailant knocked her on the ground and stamped on her head several times while making anti-Asian remarks.
Data from the coalition called Stop AAPI Hate showed that Filipinos are third among the nationalities that experience hate incidents. From March 2020 to September 2021 alone, at least 933 Filipinos have reportedly fallen victims to hate crimes across the US.
In the second half of 2021, the DFA also mounted a Herculean effort to bring home Filipinos as the crisis in Afghanistan sent countries of origin, including the Philippines scrambling to repatriate their nationals who want to escape the Taliban rule as the group successfully seized the capital Kabul.
Grim visuals of foreigners and locals fleeing from the country at that time were all over the social media, some of whom have died in the process as they desperately cling on a moving aircraft to escape the country, falling midair as the plane took off.
As of September 2021, a total of 191 Filipinos were able to leave Afghanistan while 18 others chose to stay.
Some of the repatriates who hitched a ride on US military planes landed in Qatar and stayed there until they were sent back home.
For Philippine Consul General to Qatar Roussel Reyes, this shows the effective coordination between the country's foreign service posts, the DFA, and its partners.
"If you would recall maraming mga Pilipino ang na-evacuate from Afghanistan at dito po sa Qatar sila nakarating dahil po nga may US military facility po dito and again (there were many Filipinos who were evacuated from Afghanistan and landed here in Qatar). With the strong support (of) the department and in coordination po with the US armed forces and the concerned Qatar authorities, we were able to repatriate them from Qatar to the Philippines," he said.
Apart from protecting its nationals, the Philippines opened its doors to Afghan, the first batch of whom arrived in the country last September 2021-- an act, which according to Locsin, showed Manila "stays steady where others waver".
'Promoting PH interest'
The year 2021 also highlighted the Philippines' commitment to pursuing an independent foreign policy as it engages with all states while promoting the country's national interests.
"The DFA has not wavered in its mandate to keep our territories secured, contribute to national economic development, protect the rights and attend to the welfare of Filipinos, promote Filipino culture, and uphold our nation's standing in the global community," Locsin said.
"Resolute and resilient, the DFA has forged ahead under the guidance and direction of President Duterte. As no one thought possible, we have pursued an independent foreign policy for the first time in the history of the Republic and done well by it," he added.
It was also in 2021 that the country decided to retain the Visiting Forces Agreement more than a year after the chief executive announced its abrogation.
On the West Philippine Sea, the DFA assured the public that the Philippines answered every incursion in its territory.
In fact, 2021 saw a flurry of diplomatic protests filed against China amid its illegal presence and activities in Philippine waters.
In April, the DFA came out with a strong statement calling out Beijing over what it called blatant infringement upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.
At that time, Philippine maritime law enforcement agencies observed the continued unauthorized presence and activities of more than a hundred Chinese fishing vessels and "Chinese Maritime Militia vessels" within the country's exclusive economic zone; in the waters of Kalayaan Island Group; and in and around the territorial waters of Bajo de Masinloc.
Manila also refuted China's claims in the Ayungin Shoal after the latter's coast guard blocked and fired water cannon on two Philippine boats while en route to resupply the garrison of Filipino troops in the Ayungin last November.
President Duterte in his 2021 State of the Nation Address confirmed that the government had asserted "clearly and in no uncertain terms" the 2016 arbitration ruling on the South China Sea bilaterally, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and finally, at the United Nations General Assembly."
Despite the limitations posed by the pandemic, DFA was also able to advance the negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) with parties reaching a "provisional agreement" on its preamble.
"An effective and substantive COC remains our goal, it goes without saying that it must uphold UNCLOS and the arbitral award and not undermine it," Locsin said.
In his own words, Duterte in 2021 stressed that "gone are the days when the Philippines decides and acts in the shadows of great powers. We will assert what is rightfully ours and fight for what is rightfully due to the Filipino people." (PNA)