MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to prepare to deploy its aircraft and ships “at any moment’s notice” to evacuate thousands of Filipino workers in Iraq and Iran, reflecting Asia’s growing fears for its citizens amid a potential outbreak of wider war in the Middle East.
Other Asian nations with large populations of expatriate labor may face similar decisions amid the rapidly escalating tensions between the United States and Iran after last week’s U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
South Korean government ministries have discussed strengthening protections for the nearly 1,900 South Koreans in Iraq and Iran. India’s foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said India was not planning to evacuate any citizens from the volatile region “yet.”
Duterte held an emergency meeting with his defense secretary and top military and police officials Sunday to discuss the evacuation plans.
“President Duterte ordered the armed forces of the Philippines to be prepared to deploy military assets to repatriate overseas Filipinos in the Middle East, particularly from Iran and Iraq, at any moment’s notice,” said Sen. Christopher Lawrence Go, a close ally of the Duterte who was at the meeting.
Iran has vowed to retaliate and President Trump warned that U.S. forces would hit back at 52 Iranian targets if Americans come under attack. Iraq’s Parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, which could revive the Islamic State group in Iraq, making the Middle East a more dangerous and unstable place.
Compounding contingency plans is uncertainty about where hostilities could break out.
Military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. said Philippine forces have identified possible evacuation routes in Iraq and Iran and other hotspots, such as Israel.
“There are probabilities like that and we are improving our plans just to cover everything just in case something happens,” Santos told reporters in Manila.
Other countries face similar dilemmas. Asians make up 40% of the world’s emigrants, and Middle Eastern countries are a common destination. African immigrants also are employed around the Middle East; the possibility of their home countries arranging evacuations was uncertain.
Gulf Arab states are home to more than 7 million Indian expatriates who help drive the region’s economy and keep its cities teeming with doctors, engineers, teachers, drivers, construction workers and other laborers. In United Arab Emirates, Indians outnumber Emiratis three to one.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that government agencies have discussed preparations for an escalating crisis in the Middle East but had no immediate plans for evacuations. The ministry said about 1,600 South Koreans are in Iraq, mostly working in construction, while another 280 who live in Iran are businesspeople, students or spouses of Iranians.
On past occasions, China has evacuated its citizens from other countries during times of conflict, political tension or natural disaster. In 2015, the navy transported nearly 500 Chinese out of war-torn Yemen. It evacuated 3,000 from Vietnam in 2014, after the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters elicited a wave of anti-China riots.
There are more than 7,000 Filipino workers and their dependents in Iraq and Iran, including many who work in U.S. and other foreign facilities and commercial establishments in Baghdad, the Department of National Defense said.
The workers in Iran and Iraq are a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who are employed in countries lining the Persian Gulf.
The Philippines is a leading source of labor worldwide with about a tenth of its more than 100 million people working mostly as household help, construction workers, seamen and professionals.