Some 10,000 Filipino domestic workers are expected to take up President Rodrigo Duterte’s offer of a free flight home from Kuwait, amid growing welfare concerns following the alleged murder of a maid.
The safety of the 276,000 Filipinos who work in the Gulf nation, many as domestic workers, has been in the spotlight after the body of Joanna Demafelis was found in the freezer of her employer’s flat last Wednesday. The 29-year-old had been missing for a year.
Amid mounting public outrage over the killing, the Philippines has taken steps to repatriate 10,000 Filipinos who have overstayed their work visas in Kuwait, offering to pay airfares and visa fines.
“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.
Manila has also banned its citizens from taking up new roles in Kuwait. CNN reported Wednesday that 2,200 Filipinos in Kuwait have received travel documents to return home, and 900 have made the trip so far.
Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano wrote on Facebook that the returning workers were escaping “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,” he said.
More than 2 million Filipinos work overseas, with the remittances sent home forming an important source of revenue for the southeast Asian nation. Nearly 60 percent work in the Middle East, many of them as maids.
But domestic workers in Kuwait are not protected by standard labor laws. Rights groups have documented widespread exploitation of Filipino domestic workers in the Gulf and East Asian countries, with reports of physical and sexual abuse, long working hours, and non-payment of wages.
The killing of Demafelis, whose body showed signs of being strangled, has prompted angry exchanges between Duterte and the Kuwaiti government.
At a news conference Friday, brandishing photos purportedly of the slain woman whom he said had been “roasted like a pig,” the Philippines president accused Kuwaiti employers of regularly abusing Filipino workers.
“Is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?” he asked.
Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah Tuesday condemned Duterte’s remarks.
“This escalation will not serve the relationship between Kuwait and the Philippines,” he told reporters. “We condemn the statements of the Philippine president, especially since we are in contact with the Philippines at the highest level to fully explain the state of the Filipino workforce in Kuwait.”
Interpol are hunting for Demafelis’ former employers, a Lebanese man and a Syrian woman who have since fled Kuwait,” according to reports. Demafelis had worked for the couple since arriving in Kuwait in 2014. Attempts by her family to track her down had proven unsuccessful since the recruitment agency that placed her had closed down. Her body was only discovered after her employers’ landlord got a court order to forcibly evict them for not paying rent.
Cover image: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Davao City, in the southern island of Mindanao on February 9, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.