Asian expat workers to be evacuated from Iran

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - 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 after tensions in the region spiked after US airstrikes killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

Other Asian nations with large expatriate populations may follow suit amid the rapidly escalating tensions between the US and Iran, after Tehran promised severe retaliation over Soleimani's killing.

Washington is also refusing to rule out further military action in the region.

South Korean government ministries have discussed strengthening protections for the nearly 1,900 South Koreans in Iraq and Iran.

South Korea's foreign ministry said Monday that government agencies had 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.

Duterte held an emergency meeting with his defence 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.

Duterte expressed fears Monday that the Philippines may have to carry out massive evacuations if violence hits Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia that host large numbers of Filipino workers.

"I'm nervous. Iran seems to be hell-bent on a retaliation, which I think will come. It's a matter of time ... the cry for blood is there," Duterte said in a speech. He urged Congress to hold a special session on the impact of a possible crisis in the Middle East and set aside contingency funds.

Read More: The Iraq Report: Iran's power in Iraq now questioned after US kills Soleimani

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said India wasn't planning to evacuate any citizens from the volatile region "yet".

Duterte is considering pulling citizens from the maestrom of the Middle East [Getty]

Iran has vowed to retaliate and President Donald warned that US forces would hit back at 52 Iranian targets if Americans come under attack. Iraq's parliament has also called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, and Trump has threatened sanctioned that would make Iran's look "tame" in response.

Military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. said Philippine forces have identified possible evacuation routes not only in Iraq and Iran but other hotspots, like 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.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said on Twitter on Sunday that he had spoken to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "on the evolving situation in the Gulf region" and highlighted "India's stakes and concerns".

He also tweeted that he spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. "Noted that developments have taken a very serious turn. India remains deeply concerned about the levels of tension," he said of his conversation with Zarif.

Gulf Arab states are home to more than 7 million Indian expatriates, including doctors, engineers, teachers, drivers, construction workers and other laborers. In UAE, Indians outnumber Emiratis three to one.

Precedent

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 US 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.

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