MANILA: The Philippine government was on Monday preparing to repatriate the bodies of more than 200 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from Saudi Arabia, revealed Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
It was hoped that the deceased OFWs could be flown home this week. The Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Adnan Alonto, also on Monday said that a total of 353 OFWs’ bodies were “now up for disposition” in the Kingdom.
“Of the 353 dead Filipino nationals, 107 were due to (the coronavirus disease) COVID-19, while 246 died of natural causes and various crime-related incidents,” the envoy added.
Alonto said that under normal circumstances burials must take place within 24 hours in Saudi Arabia, as per Islamic funeral customs.
“But for non-Muslims, they also respect the custom on the disposition of (human) remains. The authorities issued guidance that if the death is COVID-related, the body should be disposed within 72 hours ... from the time the embassy is informed,” he told a televised news briefing.
The process, however, will be different for COVID-19 deaths.
“We have made a request, if possible, to give us an exemption but I understand that the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) already made a pronouncement that COVID-19 cases will have to be buried here (Saudi Arabia),” added Alonto.
He said the authorities were closely coordinating with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) for the repatriation of the other bodies.
In a separate TV interview, Locsin said the Philippine government was arranging chartered cargo flights to bring home the bodies of OFWs from Saudi Arabia.
He added that he had met with Saudi Ambassador to the Philippines Dr. Abdullah Al-Bussairy, who had said that the Kingdom was ready to help with the repatriation process.
“How fast will we do that? We need a flight to get there. We’re getting a cargo flight even as we speak,” he said, adding that they were hoping to repatriate more than 200 bodies this week.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Filipino Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said that his office had received communication from King Salman giving the Philippines 72 hours to return home the dead OFWs.
“Cremation is not allowed (in Saudi), that’s why the directive of King Salman is for us to bring them home. But the decision of the IATF is to bury there those who died from COVID-19, while the remaining 200 plus we will bring them home (in batches),” he added.
Alonto added that the delay in repatriation was due to a lack of flights. “During the almost three-month lockdown, there were no flights, so there was a backlog. That was largely the cause.”
Saudi Arabia remains the top destination for OFWs, with government records showing that more than 900,000 Filipinos were currently employed in the Kingdom.