US & World

Killing prompts return of Philippines workers from Kuwait

More than 900 Philippines workers return

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) - As many as 10,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait are expected to take up the Philippines government's offer of a free flight home after the body of their compatriot was found stuffed in a freezer.

President Rodrigo Duterte's administration has ordered a ban on the deployment of overseas foreign workers to Kuwait after the deaths of several women, including 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis.

Demafelis' body was found in the freezer of her employers' home on Wednesday where authorities believe it could have been stored for up to one year.

The offer of a free flight home was extended to the 10,000 Filipinos who had overstayed their visa in the Gulf state.

"I will sell my soul to the devil to look for money so that you can come home and live comfortably here," Duterte said Tuesday. The Philippines President said last week he was ready to take "drastic steps" to protect Filipinos working abroad.

As of Wednesday, more than 900 Philippines workers had returned on chartered flights, the country's Overseas Workers Welfare Administration told CNN.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said at a news conference Monday that thousands of Filipinos had turned up at the embassy in Kuwait since January 29 to initiate the repatriation process agreed with the Kuwait government. More than 2,200 had received travel documents so far.

"They will return bringing with them virtually nothing but sad stories of how their dreams for a better life for their loved ones got shattered by exploitation and abuse. They are the first of hundreds who have heeded the President's call for them to go home so they could escape further maltreatment abroad," Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said on Facebook.

Kuwait has become a popular destination for Philippines overseas foreign workers in recent years.

The Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry said 276,000 Filipino workers were in the country in January. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, more than 2.2 million Philippines nationals worked overseas in 2016, 6.4% of whom were in Kuwait.

Duterte previously said he plans to visit Kuwait and take up the issue.

"We do not seek special treatment or privileges for our workers, but we do expect respect for their dignity and basic human rights," Duterte said Friday.

"To the Kuwaiti government and all others where our OFWs work, we seek and expect your assistance in this regard."

When asked for comment, Kuwaiti Deputy Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Sami Abdul Azizi told CNN he has met with Philippine Ambassador Renato Pedro Villa to discuss issues pertaining to the Philippine community living in Kuwait, but declined to give further details.

Found a year later

Demafelis' family lost contact with her in May 2016, about two years after she arrived in the Middle East, according to CNN Philippines.

They said she never said anything bad about her employers, but had suspicions she was being watched. Demafelis was only able to speak to them three times a year.

During that last phone call, Demafelis said she planned to come home in 2018. But after not hearing from her for a nearly year, Demafelis' family reported her missing, her sister told CNN Philippines.

Investigators tried to find her through the Kuwaiti agency that recruited her, but discovered it had closed down.

Police didn't discover her body until investigators set their sights on her Lebanese employer, who had been accused of falsifying checks. The body was discovered Wednesday and showed signs she may have been strangled to death, authorities said.

Abuse of domestic helpers is tragically common in the Middle East and throughout East Asia. Last year, Human Rights Watch accused Qatar of subjecting migrant workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup to life-threatening conditions.

A survey in December found the majority of domestic workers in the city state of Singapore were exploited. And a 2016 report found that thousands of domestic workers in Hong Kong were subject to slave-like conditions.