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10,000 Filipino Workers in Kuwait Consider Returning Home After Body Found in Freezer

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has offered a free plane ticket home for Filipino workers living in Kuwait after the body of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis was found stuffed in a freezer.

Up to 10,000 of the workers are reportedly expected to take him up on the offer, even though it will mean financial ruin for many of them as they effectively return home empty-handed after years of laboring overseas.

Demafelis was a domestic worker who was allegedly tortured and murdered by her employers over a year ago. Her body was stuffed in a freezer and discovered only recently when the owner of the apartment occupied by a Lebanese man named Nader Essam Assaf and his Syrian wife Mona Hassoun obtained a court order to evict them for failing to pay their rent.

It was soon determined that Assaf and Hassoun left Kuwait long ago, possibly only a few months after Demafelis’ family lost contact with her. They were at first believed to have fled to Lebanon, which has extradition arrangements with Kuwait, but now the authorities say the couple is hiding out in Syria, which does not.

Assaf has a spotty legal history, including some bounced checks, which initially drew the attention of investigators. However, his family insists his wife is the more likely culprit for the abuse and murder of Demafelis, suggesting she is so “edgy” and hostile that marriage to her might have made Assaf “mentally unstable.”

Filipinos have criticized the lax Kuwaiti investigation of Demafelis’ disappearance, and also the refusal of Kuwaiti authorities to repatriate her body. Her family claims they filed the necessary paperwork but have heard nothing from Kuwait about a date for the return of her remains. Kuwaiti authorities say they intend to keep the body until they perform a thorough autopsy.

The Philippine agency responsible for the welfare of overseas workers has also been criticized for giving up on the search for Demafelis after it determined the Kuwaiti agency that secured employment for her had been shuttered for “recruitment infractions” in the summer of 2016.

“We are trying our best to return the body back to her family, as requested by them. The body has signs of torture and broken bones. So, definitely she was killed before she was placed in the freezer,” Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Rene Villa said on Wednesday.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was considerably less diplomatic in his comments on the case. Waving photos of Demafelis’ corpse at a press conference on Friday, he said she had been “roasted like a pig.”

“Is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?” Duterte snarled at Kuwait. “What are you doing to my countrymen? And if I were to do it to your citizens here, would you be happy?”

Duterte ordered a total ban on sending new Filipino workers to Kuwait, expanding a partial suspension announced in January, then offered free plane tickets home to all Filipinos currently in Kuwait who wished to return.

“I will sell my soul to the devil to look for money so that you can come home and live comfortably here,” he vowed on Tuesday.

“I want them out of the country, those who want to go out, in 72 hours. We will count our lives by the hours because apparently every hour there is suffering and agony,” Duterte declared, calling upon airlines in the Philippines to provide the necessary transportation.

“They will return bringing with them virtually nothing but sad stories of how their dreams for a better life for their loved ones got shattered by 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,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said after the first wave of about 2,200 workers in Kuwait began the repatriation process.

Roughly 900 Filipino workers had returned to the Philippines on chartered flights as of Wednesday. The Philippine government expects at least 10,000 workers to accept Duterte’s offer of a ticket home, out of over 250,000 working in Kuwait and some two million working in the Middle East. In total, they remit over $2 billion in income to their families in the Philippines.

The Kuwaiti government maintains that many of those returning home were illegal residents who overstayed their visas and were taking advantage of a temporary amnesty offered by Kuwait, while some of the others were making scheduled holiday visits home instead of leaving permanently at Duterte’s invitation.

The murder of Joanna Demafelis was the last straw for many Filipinos, evidently including President Duterte. Complaints about the abuse of foreign workers in Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries have been circulating for many years. The deaths of seven other Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait are currently under investigation.

“This escalation will not benefit the relationship between Kuwait and the Philippines,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Khalid al-Sabah said on Tuesday, seeking to calm Filipino anger over Demafelis’ murder.

“We have 170,000 Filipino nationals living a decent life here. They have one of the least number of problems out of all expatriate communities. Isolated incidents unfortunately happen. We share all of our findings and investigations with the Philippine authorities,” he said.

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