Poe calls for full utilization of PhP100-M fund to provide legal aid to OFWs

MANILA, Nov. 29 (PNA) – Senator Grace Poe urged the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Sunday to fully utilize the Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) to help the distressed Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and those who are in need of legal services.

The legal assistance fund amounting to PhP100 million is used exclusively to provide legal services, such as lawyer’s and court’s fees, to the more than 2.3 million Filipino workers abroad.

As of June 2015, there were at least 7,683 OFWs that had been charged and detained. According to the DFA, 90 Filipinos are facing a death sentence.

In 2014, the DFA reported that it had assisted only 252 Filipinos through the LAF, a measly number compared to the number of OFWs who need legal assistance, Poe said.

“There is an evident disconnect between the number of OFWs in distress and the number of those that received legal assistance. How can you underutilize the LAF when we often hear OFWs decry the lack of assistance from the government?” asked Poe.

The government allocated PhP100 million for the LAF in the 2015 General Appropriations Act (GAA), but only half of the fund was disbursed. The DFA is proposing the same amount to be appropriated in the 2016 budget.

The lawmaker scored inefficient mechanisms for the utilization of the LAF and said such underspending violates Special Provision No. 11 of the GAA, which ensures the “efficient and effective utilization of the LAF,” a finding that was also pointed out by the UN Commission on Migrant Workers.

“The LAF has been underutilized because many of our OFWs do not even know that it exists,” Poe said. “Our consulates and embassies must make sure that our migrant workers know what the government can do for them.”

The senator, who is pushing for greater protection for OFWs, urged Philippine embassies and consulates to prepare a module with an easy-to-understand step-by-step procedure that can guide Filipino workers seeking legal assistance abroad.

She said the LAF should also be thoroughly discussed in pre-departure seminars here.

Acquiring legal services abroad costs a fortune for overseas workers. For example, in the Middle East, where a majority of OFWs work, a competent private counsel for criminal cases is worth USD 6,000, while court fees and bail bonds to secure temporary release are each worth USD 5,000 per accused.

“The government must actively represent Filipinos abroad and intervene in their cases, instead of just relying on executive clemency. We need to have a core legal team within the DFA and we must tap the LAF to make sure every Filipino is protected, wherever he may be,” Poe said.

The DFA was also given PhP350 million for the Assistance to Nationals (ATN) Fund for 2015 but only PhP162 million has been disbursed from January to July so far, benefiting 3,459 OFWs. The ATN fund is for temporary shelter, basic necessities, emergency medical treatment and repatriation.

Poe noted that OFWs are the drivers of the economy, sending USD 26.93 billion worth of remittances last year. (PNA)