Syria: Domestic Worker Elena’s Dramatic Escape home to the Philippines

Elena (not her real name), 34, was desperate for a job and grabbed an offer for a job in Syria in November 2008. She didn’t mind the clandestine manner that she and six others were slipped into Syria, knowing it was her best chance to give her two children a decent life after her husband left them.

Every day female workers from the Philippines are lured to promises of better jobs overseas and even the armed conflict raging in Syria has not stopped the trafficking of women domestic workers into the country.

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs says there may be as many as 17,000 Filipino workers in Syria. Most are women and more than 90 per cent are undocumented.

When Elena arrived at Damascus airport without proper work documents, she and 6 others were held at the immigration office. “We were told to wait for our agent. We did not have enough food and after three days a male agent brought us to different employers in Latakia.”

There were already three Filipino workers in the house of the rich couple who hired Elena. The first thing the couple did was to confiscate her mobile phone and passport. She was not allowed days off and only given a salary of US$200 a month – half the amount promised the recruiter in Manila.

Her work contract ended in November last year, but she had no way home.

“We couldn’t sleep as we could hear the bombings and gunfire. But our employer told us that there’s no war and the Syrian president was just partying,” said Elena.

Elena and the others with her were not aware of the uprisings in Syria until they learned from the news on the internet. They befriended a Syrian security guard who allowed them to search the internet for contacts to government offices and the embassy in Damascus.

“We were desperate to return home as we feared for our lives. Our employers left home with their children and we were locked inside their huge house,” she said.

Nobody was answering the phone at the embassy in Damascus so they searched other lines for help, eventually contacting Susan “Toots” Ople, a former under-secretary of the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment (Dole). Ople currently runs an ngo called Blas F. Ople Policy Center, named after her late father and former foreign affairs secretary and senator. The group assists distressed Filipino migrant workers by coordinating with embassies and labour attachés in host governments.

Ople passed on the case of Elena and her colleagues to Philippine labour labour attachés in Syria, who mapped out their rescue, telling them to get out of their employer’s house during the night of May 5.

“We planned the escape from our room at the fourth floor of a five storey mansion that is heavily guarded,” said Elena. The labour attachés were to fetch them at 12 midnight, but they ended up in the hands of Syrian police instead. “We tied our blankets and used them as rope to get us all to the ground floor,” she said. “I was the last one to go down but I heard some commotions and feared that the guard would find out about our escape, so I jumped and broke my hips.”

The other Filipinos helped Elena to get to a cab, but the driver phoned the police and brought them to jail instead of the Philippine embassy.

“At the precinct, I was in deep pain due to fractured hips but the officers ignored me. My colleagues were handcuffed over the next seven days and we were fed just once a day,” said Elena. She said it was only when staff from the Philippine embassy visited them that she was brought to the hospital.

But most of the hospitals were crowded with civilians wounded in the conflict. Elena managed to stay there for a couple of days then pleaded to return home instead because no one was looking after her.

Syrian police had taken their belongings when they were arrested. “Our belongings were returned two weeks after we arrived in Manila. But most of our clothes are no longer there and sadly, the money I saved worth US$1,000 was missing.”

Ople believes that Syria remains at the top of the list of countries where poor Filipinos are being trafficked, followed by Malaysia and Jordan.

She said despite the deployment ban to Syria since last year, the number of Filipino workers there is steadily growing. The Philippine government estimated that there were 6,000 Filipino workers in Syria in 2006 but that number had risen to as high as 17,000 in 2011.

Ople said recruitment agents who connive with traffickers in the Philippines charge Syrian employers an average of US$3,000 for every worker that they hire.

Labor undersecretary and administrator Hans Cacdac of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said traffickers take advantage of the Southern backdoor-airports in Zamboanga and Davao as jump off points to non-visa countries like Asean countries Hong Kong. These workers consequently take international flights to Dubai and Jordan to be able to enter Syria.

“We are addressing the problem but this task is not an easy one,” said Cacdac in an interview.

A tough task indeed as Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario himself admitted it is difficult to locate and repatriate Filipinos from Syria as violence continues to escalate.

Del Rosario personally led the repatriation of the first batch of Filipino workers from Syria in January 2011. He said Syrian officials whom he sought help from were too burdened with the escalating violence and massive arms smuggling.

The Philippine government has since then fought the lonely battle of locating Filipinos trapped in the war-torn country and repatriating them with financial help from the International Organization for Migration.

Another hurdle to repatriation according to Del Rosario is the demand of employers of Filipino workers to reimburse their hiring expenses, which range from US$3,000 to US$8,000. Payment is needed as employers’ signature is required for exit visas for Filipino workers.

Due to the escalating violence, Del Rosario reactivated the response team in July. So far, a total of 1,993 Filipino workers have been repatriated.

Ople stressed that trafficking of Filipino workers to Syria and other Middle East countries will continue until the government tackles the systemic web of deceit that leaves female workers trapped in a foreign war on top of the abuse they suffer from their employers.

“The government remains trapped in this numbers game of sending home workers from Syria while those being trafficked replace them every day even in bigger numbers,” said Ople. She added that the government should step up measures that provide decent jobs at home to prevent poor people from falling in the hands of traffickers.

The Philippines should ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 that protects the rights and welfare of domestic workers at home and overseas, Ople said. The Convention recognises domestic workers as part of the formal job sector and entitles them to decent pay, rest day, social protection and medical insurance.

“ILO Convention recognizes domestic work as an occupation and not a favor granted to women to stay in the house of employers to live and eat for free,” said Ople.

The Visayan Forum, an ngo that campaigns for protection of the rights of Filipino domestic workers, said an increasing number of young women are leaving their homes in the Philippines to find jobs abroad as nannies and maids.

Visayan Forum executive director Cecilia Flores-Oebanda also stressed the importance of the Philippines ratifying the ILO Convention 189.

She said in 2010, around154,000 Filipino domestic workers went overseas – 45% of the total labour migration.

Remittances of these domestic workers form significant portion of the total remittances of more than 9 million Filipino migrant workers each year that reached US$21 billion in 2010.

The situation of Filipino workers in Syria, was a key factor in the Philippines voting against imposing UN sanctions on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

“Our vote is to ensure that the Syrian government and its people will not be hostile to our nationals and will cooperate with us in repatriating our people from the conflict affected country,” said a senior diplomat who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity.

As the conflict rages in Syria, the situation of thousands of foreign workers still trapped in Syria continues to be overlooked, or ignored.

But as they wait for the momentous day to finally return home, another war on hunger, poverty, despair and lack of opportunities awaits them and their families.