MANILA: The Philippines was on Wednesday planning to ask Saudi Arabia for an extension to a July 4 deadline to repatriate the bodies of hundreds of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from the Kingdom.
Government officials said the need to seek more time to fly home the deceased OFWs – many of whom had died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) – was due to logistical issues.
“By July 4, we have to bring home the remains of our countrymen there. We have to do that because if not, the Saudi government will bury them,” Filipino Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told a televised press conference.
He added that the government was working round the clock to repatriate the bodies of 274 OFWs from the Kingdom.
Some of the measures for the initiative included maintaining health protocols, the procurement of exit visas, and permission from employers and next of kin.
Initially, the remains of 301 OFWs were set to be repatriated, out of which 152 had died from COVID-19 and the remainder due to “natural causes," said Bello.
However, he added that 23 out of those had already been buried in Saudi Arabia. The remains of four others – whose deaths were not related to COVID-19 – had been flown back to the country through the efforts of relatives.
“So, we are talking of (the remains of) only 274, and by July 4 we have to bring them home,” Bello said.
Officials gave no further details about how or when the OFWs died.
Adnan Alonto, Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said: “During the almost three-month lockdown, there were no flights, so there was a backlog. That was largely the cause.”
Meanwhile, Filipino Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Brigido Dulay pointed out that the repatriation process could face more delays as chartered flights being arranged by the labor department (DOLE) might not be ready by July 4.
“There was an inter-agency meeting yesterday ... the plan to bring home the cadavers will push through. The only issue now remaining is really the matter of the COVID-19-infected cadavers because (Foreign Affairs) Secretary (Teodoro) Locsin (Jr.) has been consistent that we should bring all our people home, COVID-19 or not. But of course, that is still being worked out with the Saudi Arabian government,” Dulay said in a separate media briefing.
“An extension to the July 4 deadline is already being discussed because on the part of DOLE they have to mount a charter plane for this one and I understand that the plane may not be available by July 4,” he added.
He noted that paperwork still needed to be completed in Saudi Arabia to allow for the transport of the corpses.
Earlier, the DOLE had said that two chartered planes would be dedicated for the initiative with the bodies being transported from various parts of the Kingdom to Riyadh and Jeddah and eventually flown to Manila.
Upon arrival in the Philippines, the bodies of COVID-19 victims would be transported directly to the crematoriums chosen by family members or local government units, with the help of the Department of National Defense. At the same time, those who had died of other causes would be handed over to their respective families at the airport.