Administrator Marianito Roque of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration said on Saturday only 49 Filipinos had so far taken advantage of a repatriation programme run by his office.

Manila has warned workers in Iraq that they are vulnerable to capture and attacks ahead of the country's post-Saddam Hussein elections on 30 January and should seek help from the Philippine embassy. 

There are about 6000 Filipinos working in Iraq, many of whom went there despite a government ban imposed last year. 

"The Filipinos even hide because they do not want to return," he said. 

Tracking them down

The Philippines' Kuwait-based Labour Attache Angelo Jimenez was in Iraq to track down undocumented Filipino workers who entered the country despite the ban, Stella Banawis of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration said.

Manila withdrew its troops from
Iraq to save the life of a captive

It has cited the case of accountant Robert Tarongoy, who remains in the hands of Iraqi fighters more than two months after he and an American were taken in Iraq. 

In July, the Philippine government withdrew its troops serving with US-led coalition forces in Iraq to save the life of Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz who was held captive by fighters. De la Cruz was released and the government banned the deployment of more Filipinos to Iraq. 

Despite the ban, numerous Filipinos continue to seek work in Iraq, many of them with civilian firms providing services for US
forces. 

Recruitment

After the government penalised some local firms for sending workers to Iraq despite the ban, foreign employment firms resorted to recruiting the Filipinos in the countries neighbouring Iraq, Banawis said. 

"What the foreign employers do now is they are hiring the unemployed Filipino workers from Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Turkey and in other neighbouring countries ... so the Filipinos now are not recruited from the Philippines," Banawis said. 

The higher salaries for work in Iraq were still too much of a lure, she said. The Philippines has asked countries bordering Iraq to help prevent Filipino nationals from entering that country.

Despite the threats, the government has said that ordering an evacuation of Filipinos from Iraq remains only a last, emergency measure.