By Azer Parrocha
MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday called on Congress to prepare a “standby fund” that could be used for the possible evacuation of Filipino workers in the Middle East amid rising tensions between the US and Iran.
In a speech after signing the 2020 national budget, Duterte admitted that he was afraid that the lives of Filipino workers in the Middle East would be put in jeopardy after an American drone strike in Iraq killed Iran’s most important military leader.
“There is an evolving crisis somewhere. We do not know what would be the end result of this crisis. It could lead to a protracted war. It could be wide-scale strife but whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in grave peril,” Duterte said.
“We have so many millions, nearing three I think…of Filipinos working mainly in the Middle East. Kinakabahan ako (I am nervous),” he added, noting that it will only be a matter of time that Iran retaliates.
Duterte admitted that it would be a “gargantuan effort” to bring all Filipino workers in the Middle East back safely, but said it is possible with help of the Congress.
“I suggest that Congress even for about ano lang — bahala kayong (it’s up to you) one or two days discuss the problems, the ramifications. But I don’t know where you want to put the money,” Duterte said.
“If there’s a thing that would need on standby, that I can — that the government can get immediately, source it from where so that we can use the money immediately,” he added.
Panel for standby fund
Duterte suggested the creation of a committee to “cut across accounting rules” for the standby fund for Filipino evacuees because he did not want his office to handle it.
“We might want to place it in the hands of a committee kasi ayaw ko ‘yung magkwenta-kwenta ako pagkatapos (I don’t want to compute and then when you get) you got huge amount… I do not want to be bothered with that kind of…” Duterte said.
“We need billions there, standby lang (only). And calculate what would be the calibrated withdrawals first in places where it is really very dangerous,” he added.
He said he is “allergic” to having to decide on where to spend government funds.
“I am not as bright as the others, those with strategic minds might want to do it for us. Let’s start with a standby fund,” Duterte said.
“I’m very allergic to how the money is spent. I do not want to hold it. We might want to get some of the men with integrity and probity and they can be the disbursing body there,” he added.
Although he could handle the job himself, the least he wanted was being cast aspersions on.
“I would rather that you have the power to do it. If you really want to do it, you create a committee and make an oversight kaagad (immediately). A congressional oversight so that everything will be okay,” he said.
To prevent corruption, Duterte also urged the Congress to put “safeguards” in the fund for Filipino evacuees.
“Alam mo ‘pag ganito malaking pera at saka mabilisan ang pasa (You know if it involves a huge sum of money and immediate release), there’s bound to be some you know. I hate to say this but that’s always the case,” Duterte said.
“You have a bureaucracy who’s sometimes corrupt. And a bureaucracy who’s timid, who’s very extra cautious and that is why the projects are not implemented even down the line,” he added.
Ensure their safety
On Sunday, Duterte met with security officials to discuss contingency measures to ensure Filipino workers’ safety in the Middle East.
“I told them of the gravity of the situation and told them that they have to start even the deployment itself,” Duterte said.
“It just cannot — there is no such thing as a minimalist view here. It’s fraught with danger. And I am afraid of the so many lives of our countrymen in jeopardy in that place,” he added.
In a Palace briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo assured that the Armed Forces has prepared their assets for the possible evacuation of Filipino workers.
Panelo acknowledged how some Filipinos refused to evacuate despite the rising conflict, but said it was too early to say if the President would call for forced repatriation.
“Basta ang sinabi ni Presidente ‘i-ready n’yo lahat ‘yan, ‘pag nag-escalate ‘yan eh kailangang i-pullout natin ang mga kababayan natin’ (The President said ‘Ready your assets, when tension escalates, we need to pull out of citizens),” Panelo said.
“Kung nanganganib ang kanilang buhay siyempre gagawin ang lahat ng pamahalaan upang mailigtas sila sa kapahamakan (If their lives are in danger, of course, the government will do everything to protect them from harm),” he added.
Oil prices being monitored
Meanwhile, he also assured that the government is prepared for the possible impact on oil prices amid escalating US-Iran tensions.
“Sabi ni Secretary Pernia, mino-monitor nila ‘yan, tinigtignan nila kung anong magiging epekto sa atin at paghahandaan nila (Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said they are monitoring it and they’ll see its effect and prepare for it),” Panelo said.
“I’m sure ‘yung grupo ng economic managers natin mayroon silang ginagawang kahandaan upang tugunan kung ano man ang krisis na darating arising out of the Middle East tension (I’m sure the group of economic managers have measures in place to respond to what crisis may result from tension in the Middle East),” he added.
Reports showed that global oil prices climbed by more than 4 percent after the airstrike at Baghdad airport.
The US attack on Jan. 3 killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, prompting Iran’s government to express moves to retaliate. (PNA)