Manila: More than 12,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have processed their papers and are waiting for their exit clearance and visa before they could return home, but they represent a little more than 10 per cent of a total of 108,000 undocumented OFWs in Saudi Arabia where authorities began a crackdown on illegal foreign workers on November 3, giving the Philippine government a very big problem to solve, sources told Gulf News.

Some 12,729 OFWS are awaiting exit clearance, confirmed Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.

The Commission on Overseas Filipinos (COF) said that 108,000 OFWs in Saudi Arabia are undocumented based on labour records in 2012.

Since the processing of papers take time, following the month of Ramadan, of the 12,729 OFWs who are ready to go home, only a total of 1,433 OFWs — 992 in Jeddah and 441 in Riyadh — are near the finish line of getting their clearance and exit visa, said Baldoz, hinting that the rest, about 11,296, would have to wait longer for their papers to be processed.

As a stop-gap measure, the Saudi government has given the assurance that those who have processed their papers would not be arrested, said Vice-President Jejomar Binay, also a presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers’ affairs.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government has to solve two major problems: to give shelter to OFWs whose papers are being processed, so that they will not be arrested, and give assistance to OFWs who have not yet processed their papers. This could come in many forms.

The number of OFWs who have not yet processed their papers could be as high as 90,000 or as low as 80,000, said a source from the labour department who requested anonymity.

“As of November 2, prior to the November 3 deadline for amnesty to illegal foreign workers, 727 OFWs, 428 women and 299 men, had called up the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh regarding access to shelter,” labour secretary Baldoz said. On Monday, about 206 OFWs were sheltered in the Migrant Overseas Workers Resource Centre in Riyadh, she added.

Migrante, a non-government organisation that looks after the welfare of OFWs has identified a low number of 6,700 illegal OFWs in the Middle East who need assistance.

About 1,700 of them are in Jeddah, and 5,000 in Al Khobar, Damman, and Riyadh, said Gary Martinez of Migrante, whose office launched hotlines for OFWs who would need shelter.

Sources said that Migrante has the liberty to offer shelter to illegal OFWs, whose number might prove too big for a non-government organisation.

Monetary assistance

At the same time, the Philippine government has set aside 50 million pesos (Dh4.16 million) additional budget for all OFWs who would be affected by the crackdown in Saudi Aarbia starting November 3.

The assistance includes travel documents for illegal OFWs, said Ambassador Raul Hernandez, spokesman of Manila’s foreign affairs department.

An undocumented migrant can be imprisoned for six months to one year and fined from 12,000 to 20,000 Saudi riyals (Dh11,749 to Dh19,582).

The Philippine government has also set aside a 2-billion peso (Dh 166.6 million) fund for the re-integration of OFWs who are deported to the Philippines.

The Philippine government also faces the problem of slow return of illegal OFWS. “They come back in trickles, and the suffering they reveal sound like hell, which the Philippine government must promptly appease and soothe,” observed another source from the labour department who requested anonymity.

The snail-paced arrival of illegal and vulnerable OFWs from Saudi Arabia could mean more work, time, and money for Philippine officials.

With the help of Senator Cynthia Villar’s Villar Foundation, 30 deported OFWs arrived on Sunday night. Sobbing, they told reporters about “feet being chained,” or “being treated like animals”.

Thirteen more OFWS, including children, are arriving on Wednesday.

Different line agencies have been giving different numbers of OFWs who were repatriated — from 4,420 to 4,530. “The Riyadh Philippine Embassy and the Jeddah Philippine Consulate have released travel documents to 10,760 OFWs,” said the foreign affairs office.

On March 28, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on illegal overseas workers. Giving a reprieve, King Andullah Bin Abdul Aziz allowed illegal foreign workers until April to process their papers to pave the way for the legalisation of their stay in the country.

The request for extension from July 3 to November 3, the deadline of amnesty for undocumented workers, came from the governments of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Philippines; and employers of foreign workers from these countries.

More than one million OFWs are based in Saudi Arabia. More than 10 million OFWs are based worldwide.