Philippines blocks workers heading to Qatar amid 'wild rumors'

Philippine presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella talks to the media after he read a statement from the Philippine government at the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has temporarily blocked Filipinos from traveling to Qatar for work because of the possible “ripple effects” of several Arab powers breaking off diplomatic ties with Doha and “wild rumors” of what’s happening there.

Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello said the ban would be in place until the government has completed its assessment.

“I temporarily suspend the deployment of our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in the county of Qatar. This is for us to be able to assess the situation because there are so many wild rumors going around, saying things are not going well there,” Bello said in a statement on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move, accusing it of support for Islamist militants and Iran.

More than 2 million people from the Philippines are working in the Middle East as domestic helpers, construction workers, engineers and nurses, with Qatar hosting 250,000 and Saudi Arabia hosting almost a million.

Filipinos working in the Middle East sent home $7.6 billion in remittances in 2016, making the region a major source of foreign exchange inflows which help drive one of Asia’s fastest growing economies.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said the government was concerned about the possible “ripple effects” of the Arab-Qatar rift on its workers abroad.

“Concerned government agencies are looking at the matter and will extend assistance and other support for OFWs who may be affected by such action,” Ernesto Abella told a media briefing.

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest recipients of remittances. For the whole of 2017, the central bank expects remittances to grow 4 percent from last year’s $26.9 billion, which was equal to around 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie