President Arroyo is concerned at the suffering of Filipino illegals held at detention centers while awaiting deportation from Malaysia, her spokesman said yesterday.
This developed as the Malaysian government denied that harsh conditions in deportation centers had led to the death of 11 Filipino children.
Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Zainal Abidin Zain said the report of children dying in deportation centers was not true. "We limit the centers to reasonable numbers and we do provide them (deportees) with adequate food supply and healthy living conditions," Zain said.
President Arroyo is reportedly "very concerned, especially when she saw that tape," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said on radio, referring to television footage of the holding centers in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
In the footage, at least one woman was seen weeping over her dead child.
The President tapped former Tawi-Tawi congressman Nur Jaafar as the Philippine government’s "crisis manager" to handle the issue of Filipino deportees out of Sabah.
"And I’m going to appoint Nur Jaafar... to be the crisis manager on the refugee issue. So all the regional directors will have to follow what he says on the issue and I’m sending him to Sandakan (in Sabah) so that he could look at it from the other side," she said.
Mrs. Arroyo will fly this morning to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, to conduct an ocular inspection of the receiving center being set up there by various government agencies to process and assist the deportees.
Mrs. Arroyo "is personally doing something about it," Bunye said, adding her actions would be revealed later.
Manila is pressing Kuala Lumpur for better treatment of hundreds of Filipinos awaiting deportation, but is trying to head off calls for a confrontation over the issue, officials said.
The Philippines’ anger boiled over into the streets yesterday, when a small number of protesters scuffled with security guards and Malaysian embassy personnel.
About 20 leftist activists chanted "Filipino deportees have human rights too," and tried to force their way into the narrow embassy gate in Makati City.
Riot police later forced the protesters farther away from the embassy.
Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Victoriano Lecaros said all sides should "transcend finger-pointing and just concentrate at least for the moment in getting our people home."
He said both governments should ensure that the illegals "should be treated properly, that they are accorded medical attention when they need it and they are given food as a matter of routine."
Philippine legislators and the press have expressed anger over reports of alleged mistreatment of Filipinos who are being deported from Malaysia to the southern Philippines as part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople summoned the Malaysian envoy on Tuesday to express concern over the alleged mistreatment which allegedly led to the deaths of several Filipino infants.
But some congressmen are calling for stronger action, including talks between Mrs. Arroyo and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The President however disclosed in her informal luncheon press conference yesterday that she saw no need to call up Mahathir, unlike in the past involving the case of renegade former governor Nur Misuari who fled to Malaysia after leading a failed revolt in Sulu.
"In this case it’s really Malaysian policy to do it in an orderly way," she said of the mass repatriation.
The President indicated she would rather see both government authorities of the Philippines and Malaysia "to work together" to alleviate the condition of the Filipino deportees from Sandakan rather than revive conflict on the ownership of Sabah.
She said Ople just came back from Kuala Lumpur to report that Malaysian authorities have reassured him to carry out a "slower and orderly" repatriation of the remaining Filipinos there.
Lecaros said Manila was taking a "calibrated response," to the issue.
He said that if the Malaysians were detaining people, "I think it becomes incumbent upon (them) to supply their daily needs."
In Cotabato City, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Parouk Hussin warned yesterday of a "catastrophe" in the ARMM region if foreign donors would not promptly intervene on the plight of deportees who are mostly originally from provinces comprising the ARMM.
"Apart from food, we need vaccines because there could be diseases in Malaysia which are not found in Southern Philippines. Malaysia is not polio-free, we need vaccines for polio," Hussin told The STAR.
Hussin, himself a physician, said the regional government now has a team of doctors and social welfare workers helping the deportees in Tawi-Tawi’s Mapun island and Bongao town, but fiscal and logistical support for their operations are fast dwindling.
Since February, about 64,000 Filipinos have left Sabah and about 4,000 others are awaiting deportation, officials in Manila said.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas F. Ople met with Malaysian Ambassador Taufik Mohamed Noor at the Department of Foreign Affairs and handed him a diplomatic note expressing the Philippine government's concern over the harsh conditions surrounding the deportation of Fiipinos from Sabah.
While Secretary Ople did not directly question Malaysia's right to enforce its immigration laws, he expressed concern over the conditions under which hundreds of undocumented Filipinos are being kept in various detention centers in Sabah.
The secretary also informed the Malaysian ambassador of the three deaths of children who had come from these centers due to dehydration and severe malnutrition.
"I stressed to him that the diplomatic protest is not meant to upset the existing excellent bilateral relations between the Philippines and Malaysia. We are keen to preserve this relationship which, of course, will further advance once conditions of Filipinos in the various detention centers in Sabah are improved," Ople said.
According to the secretary, the Malaysian ambassador told him that he would immediately transmit the Philippine government's expression of concern and that he will propose that immediate steps be taken to improve conditions in their immigration detention centers.
The ambassador assured the secretary of the high regard given by Malaysian employers to their Filipino workers. He also said the Filipino workers are welcome to come back to Malaysia once properly documented.
A number of the deportees have been found to be suffering from mostly respiratory illnesses that may have been contracted while awaiting the processing of their papers or for transportation back to the Philippines.
Three children are known to have died from their illnesses caused by the conditions in the immigration detention centers.
The secretary recalled to the Malaysian ambassador the assurances given to him by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as well as those of Foreign Minister Seri Syed Hamid Albar, about the orderly and humane treatment of Filipinos in detention centers and the conduct of their eventual deportation from Sabah.
Secretary Ople said there appears to be a gap between the commitments made by the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, on one hand, and the situation on the ground in Sabah, on the other.
Meanwhile, Ople said the DFA is throwing all reinforcements to its teams in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga City, and Jolo, Sulu.
He also called Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit to deploy more doctors to attend to the health needs of the new arrivals in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.
He had earlier conferred with Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Juliano Soliman, with whom he signed a memorandum of agreement on the deployment of DSWD personnel to assist consular and labor people in those Philippine embassies and consulates catering to large numbers of Filipinos.
The secretary also expressed his deepest sympathies to the families of children who died during the repatriation proceedings. He appealed for more medicines, clothing, and food donations for the deportees from Sabah.