Embassy denies wrongdoing – 3 suspects identified – MPs slam violation of sovereignty

KUWAIT: Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Villa speaks during a press conference at the Philippines Embassy in Siddiq yesterday. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: Kuwait yesterday summoned the Philippines’ ambassador for a second time yesterday in protest over “inflammatory comments” he made to a local newspaper, a foreign ministry source said. Remarks by Renato Pedro Villa, along with the “inappropriate behavior” of Manila’s diplomatic staff in Kuwait, have been deemed a threat to Kuwait’s sovereignty, the source noted.

The move came following videos on social media showing a Philippines Embassy team helping Filipino domestic helpers flee their sponsors’ houses in vehicles with diplomatic license plates. Villa had allegedly confirmed to Al-Jarida daily that the videos are genuine and admitted that the embassy team had been conducting such operations for over a month and managed to rescue many domestic helpers from their sponsors in areas around Kuwait.

But at an urgent press conference late yesterday, the Philippines Embassy strongly denied allegations and reports that it was acting alone in rescuing Filipinos in need of assistance in Kuwait. Villa also said statements attributed to him were misquoted.

Kuwait also summoned Villa a day earlier in connection with scathing remarks by Filipino officials, in addition to misconduct on the part of the Philippines’ diplomatic staff in the state, and handed him two protest notes. The source stated that the two protest notes are related to recent remarks of several Filipino officials which entailed serious offenses against Kuwait and the actions made by some Philippine embassy’s employees in violation of the diplomatic norms governing the relations of the two countries as per the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The source expressed regret over such practices which could harm the friendship relations between the two countries.

“The embassy always coordinates with the interior ministry when responding to requests of assistance from our nationals. This is standard procedure and we will continue to do so. All the efforts undertaken in the past weeks are to ensure that we resolve our outstanding issues before the signing of the memorandum of agreement and the upcoming visit of our president,” Villa told reporters at the hastily-arranged press conference yesterday at the embassy.

Notably, Kuwait has witnessed several cases of Filipina housemaids escaping following explosive statements made by President Rodrigo Duterte, which has paralyzed the domestic labor market in Kuwait. In January, Philippines stopped sending workers to Kuwait following reports that abuse by employers had driven several Filipinos to suicide. A high-ranking diplomatic source said that Manila has set further conditions to return its workers to the local market, and said that the foreign ministry is studying these conditions to reach a final agreement when Duterte visits Kuwait.

Villa said yesterday efforts to assists Filipinos would not be possible without the support of the Kuwaiti government. “I would like to assure that all actions taken by the embassy are intended to support our collective efforts to find solutions to problems we have encountered concerning our workers. In this connection I would like to clarify a statement attributed to me that ‘we do not need the help of Kuwaiti authorities in extending assistance to our nationals’,” he added.

“We will answer the ministry’s concerns and maybe by this week we will send the reply in a letter,” he said with regards to the foreign ministry’s summons. Asked if embassy personnel are entering homes to rescue distressed workers, Villa denied it. “No it’s not true. We do not force our way into the houses of Kuwaitis to get our workers. We coordinate with the police and the police are the ones pursuing the employers to settle the problem,” he said.

The ambassador acknowledged the support and cooperation of the Kuwaiti government. “We appreciate the support of Kuwait authorities in addressing our government’s concerns on the conditions of our domestic helpers. We thank the government for the extension of the amnesty program for undocumented foreign nationals, including Filipinos. As a result, we were able to bring 5,000 of our workers home to the Philippines.”

Villa had told Al-Jarida the team intervenes if no action is taken 24 hours after informing the interior ministry. He added the seven-member team also intervened in urgent cases that couldn’t wait to contact Kuwait’s interior and foreign ministries. “This is normal,” he stressed, noting that after helping the workers escape, the embassy contacts the sponsors to pay overdue salaries, release the workers’ passports and pay the expenses of a flight ticket as per the labor agreement signed with Kuwait. Al-Rai daily reported yesterday the rescue team waits for the domestic helper outside the employer’s home and then drives her either to the embassy or to hospital if needed.

On Wednesday, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait, together with an augmentation team from the home office, has been working overtime in the past two weeks to take custody of as many as 200 distraught Filipinos who have been awaiting rescue. It added seven teams under the supervision of Executive Director Raul Dado of the Office of Migrant Workers Affairs have been carrying out the rescue operations with the assistance of Kuwaiti authorities. However, although rescue operations required Kuwaiti police assistance, Dado said that, in some cases, rescue teams had to do it on their own, especially in cases of sexual and physical abuse.

On Thursday, the Philippine Star daily reported that rescue teams went as far as knocking on doors to find Filipino domestic helpers who have cried out for help. “Executive Director Dado says his teams would proceed to the given address, knock and request the employer to present the Filipino worker,” the DFA said. The DFA said that “26 Filipino workers have been rescued since April 7 and released a video that showed how two operations were carried out. “If the household service worker has injuries, Kuwaiti police are immediately called in and the embassy takes custody of the Filipino,” the DFA said.

Meanwhile, Kuwaiti authorities have identified and tracked down three suspects who are believed to have helped a housemaid escape from her sponsor’s home. The three suspects and the housemaid, all Filipino nationals, have been tracked down, read a statement by the Kuwaiti interior ministry yesterday. The statement cited Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Jarrah Al-Sabah’s grave concern over the incident, noting that the full force of law will be used to bring those complicit in the wrongdoing to justice.

KUWAIT: A demonstrator named Khalifa Al-Hashash stages a one-man protest outside the embassy yesterday. – Photo by Ben Garcia

MPs slam embassy
Lawmakers were outraged after the latest revelations. MP Waleed Al-Tabtabaei charged the Philippines Embassy has become a state within a state and that what happened cannot be ignored. He said he condemns the abuse of Filipino workers in Kuwait, but totally rejected the idea that the embassy forms its own security teams in the country. MP Abdullah Fahhad stressed that Kuwait’s sovereignty is non-negotiable and that violating the law and playing the role of the interior ministry is unacceptable. He also urged the interior and foreign ministers to take strict measures to protect Kuwait’s security and sovereignty.

MP Abdulkareem Al-Kandari said what that the embassy did is a clear violation of Kuwait’s sovereignty, laws, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and all relations between both countries. “The teams operating around Kuwait are actually doing field work outside the diplomatic mission, which calls for implementing article 9 of the Vienna Convention that considers such diplomats personae non gratae in the host country,” he said.

MP Faisal Al-Kandari condemned the statements made by Villa about his country’s intervention in the responsibilities of the state. “Are these statements made by an ambassador who knows and respects the laws and regulations of the host state?” he asked, noting that such disrespect of Kuwaiti laws calls for immediate measures against the ambassador including legal measures and expelling him to be an example to others. “Will the government of the Philippines accept that our embassy violates its laws the way its ambassador to Kuwait did?” he demanded.

By Ben Garcia, A Saleh and Agencies