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Thousands of Filipinos refuse to leave Libya jobs

MANILA, Philippines, Aug 3, (Agencies): Only a fraction of about 13,000 Filipinos have expressed a desire to leave Libya so far despite frantic Philippine government efforts to evacuate them because they’re afraid of losing their jobs in the conflict-torn country, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Sunday.

Del Rosario said only 1,700 Filipinos have signed up to be repatriated from the Libyan cities of Benghazi and Misrata as well as the capital, Tripoli, after the Philippines called for the mandatory evacuations of its nationals from the North African nation. The Philippines has chartered a ship to transport the Filipinos this week from Libya to Malta, where flights will be arranged to take them home.

About 160 Filipinos have escaped by land to Tunisia, including 50 workers who were briefly stranded when the border crossing was shut by authorities Friday night due to violence that erupted amid the rush to escape from Libya, del Rosario said. “I’m not sure that we can even get 50 percent to come home,” he told The Associated Press after arriving in Manila from Tunisia, where he helped arranged the evacuations of Filipinos in Libya. “They’re so scared, but their concerns are their jobs.” Filipino nurses are especially apprehensive about leaving because employers have enticed them to stay with additional pay and they are committed to their hospital work, del Rosario said.

Philippine calls for the Filipino workers and their dependents to move out of Libya heightened after a Filipino construction worker was beheaded a few weeks ago and a nurse was abducted and gang-raped amid the escalating violence. President Benigno Aquino III deployed del Rosario to Tunisia with an order for him to make sure “no one gets left behind,” del Rosario said, but he added that many simply refused to leave despite the danger. “I was told that if some of them go out of their houses, they get divested of their money and cellphones,” he said. “That’s what is scary. Nobody seems to be in charge. There are no evident police forces so if you get in trouble, you’re on your own.” The Philippines is among the world’s top labor exporters, with about a tenth of its 100 million people working abroad to prop up their families and the country’s economy with the money they send home. The Philippines on Sunday appealed to thousands of its nationals to flee Libya, warning that the situation there could worsen after only a few hundred heeded calls to return home.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was preparing a ship to ferry Filipino workers from Libyan cities to Malta so they can be flown home after fighting closed down the airport in Tripoli. President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma told reporters “we are appealing to them to call our embassy in Tripoli... it is better that at this early stage, they get in touch with our embassy” to arrange to be evacuated. So far, only 831 of the estimated 13,000 Filipinos working in Libya have returned home despite regular fighting between militia groups that has killed more than 200 people and wounded another 1,000 in the past two weeks, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

The government announced a “mandatory” evacuation of its nationals last month after the beheading of a Filipino construction worker abducted by unknown suspects. That killing was followed by the gang rape of a Filipina nurse in the capital Tripoli on Wednesday. Such security problems have prompted thousands of people to flee, mostly overland to neighbouring Tunisia, and numerous countries have closed their embassies and urged their citizens to leave. Coloma said that while some Filipinos may be stubborn, “once their lives are at stake, they will be convinced to go”. The exodus of foreigners from Libya gathered pace Sunday as the government said at least 22 people were killed in clashes in Tripoli and warned of a “worsening humanitarian situation”.

Thousands of Egyptians seeking to flee the strife-torn North African country were being airlifted home after being allowed into neighbouring Tunisia, many after a wait of several days at a border crossing. And a British navy ship was evacuating Britons from Tripoli, the defence ministry in London said. On the political front, a formal opening session of Libya’s elected parliament scheduled for Monday hung in the balance, with Islamists insisting on a Tripoli venue and nationalists calling for it to be held in the eastern city of Tobruk.

The parliament, elected on June 25, is to take over from the interim General National Congress (GNC) chosen in the wake of the 2011 revolt, which toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. “We’re in a situation where we have two different authorities: a legislature in Tobruk and another on the ground which dominates the three big cities,” Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata, all Islamist strongholds, said political activist Salah al- Bakush. The latest flare-up of violence, which erupted on Saturday, takes the death toll in Tripoli to 124 since July 13, with more than 500 wounded. A medical source said the weekend casualty figures of 22 dead and 72 wounded did not cover hospitals outside Tripoli, in particular in the town of Misrata, which has sent fighters to the capital.

The transitional government said “several hundred” families had been displaced and there was a “worsening humanitarian situation” in Tripoli, where petrol, bottled gas and food supplies are scarce. On Sunday, most shops and banks were shut and the sky was filled with black smoke from a fuel depot ravaged by a fire resulting from clashes over the past two weeks.

Tripoli airport has been closed and several aircraft destroyed or damaged in the clashes between rival militias. The unrest is seen as a struggle for influence, both between regions and political factions, as Libya plunges into chaos, with authorities failing to control the dozens of militias in the absence of a structured regular army and police force.

In Tunisia, buses started on Saturday to pick up Egyptian evacuees at the Ras Jedir border crossing to take them to Jerba airport, 100 kms (60 miles) north, for flights back to Egypt, AFP journalists said. Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Hossam Kamal, said 1,796 people had been taken to Jerba and another 1,355 were to be transferred there on Sunday, with five flights home planned. Tunisia had refused to admit people who were neither Libyan nor Tunisian unless they could prove they would be immediately repatriated and were only in transit. The government said it could not cope with a large number of Arab or Asian workers fleeing Libya as it did in 2011. The Ras Jedir crossing was shut on Friday and part of Saturday after violent clashes between Libyan border guards and hundreds of Egyptians who had tried to storm the border post.

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