Coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus: Filipinos working abroad unable to fly home for now

Govt stops inbound commercial flights as quarantine facilities near breaking point

More than 800 Filipino seamen returning home last month on a special flight from the United States and Barbados. Yesterday, the Philippine government shut the country's airports to all commercial flights for at least a week, citing the need to decong
More than 800 Filipino seamen returning home last month on a special flight from the United States and Barbados. Yesterday, the Philippine government shut the country's airports to all commercial flights for at least a week, citing the need to decongest quarantine facilities in Metro Manila.PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The Philippines yesterday shut its airports to all commercial flights for at least a week, as its quarantine capacity is near breaking point following a recent surge in Filipino workers returning from abroad.

The decision has left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos marooned in more than 40 countries dealing with their own viral outbreaks. Most have lost their jobs.

Many were furious over the sudden order. It also caused confusion after ambiguous official instructions were sent out on social media.

"So frustrating!" said Mr Roldan Abarentos, who said in a Facebook post that he worked as a seaman. "As seafarers, we really want to go home. We're stuck in the ship, and now again you make a decision without any further notice."

Mr Carlito Galvez, head of a task force overseeing the country's efforts to check the spread of the coronavirus, said in a statement that the new restrictions on inbound flights were meant to "give the government the opportunity to decongest the quarantine facilities in Metro Manila".

More than 24,000 Filipinos working abroad have so far returned home, the Foreign Ministry has said.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who helps steer the anti-virus task force, said in a radio interview that some 40,000 overseas Filipinos, many of them in the Gulf states, were expected to return in the coming weeks.

All would have to be quarantined.

The government has been using hotel rooms and ships docked in harbours as quarantine facilities, and is quickly running out of space to accommodate more people.

The Overseas Workers and Welfare Administration estimated that up to 250,000 migrant Filipino workers might be forced to return home because of the pandemic.

With the world's economies cratering, researchers in the Philippines estimate that up to 400,000 of some four million Filipinos in 46 countries may be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Manila International Airport Authority said in a post on its Facebook page last Saturday that all commercial flights "to and from the Philippines" had been suspended starting 8am yesterday.

Only flights carrying cargo and medical supplies, as well as "utility and maintenance flights", would be able to continue, it said.

But Mr Lorenzana later clarified that the ban would affect only returning overseas Filipino workers.

Foreigners who are still in the Philippines and Filipinos with jobs waiting for them abroad can still leave, said Mr Eduardo Menez, an assistant secretary at the Foreign Ministry.

Mr Galvez clarified yesterday that inbound commercial flights would have to seek an "exemption" from civil aviation officials.

But he did not say in his statement whether this was meant to prevent Filipinos abroad from boarding their flights home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2020, with the headline 'Filipinos working abroad unable to fly home for now'. Subscribe