The body of a Filipino housemaid found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait was flown home to her grieving family on Friday, focusing attention on the plight of millions of mostly poor Filipinos toiling abroad.
As Joanna Daniela Demafelis’ remains were wheeled to the Manila airport’s cargo bay, her sister broke into tears and embraced the casket before being pulled back and consoled. A brother wept quietly, speechless and overwhelmed by emotion.
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“I hope my sister will be given justice,” Demafelis’ brother, Jojit Demafelis, said later.
Demafelis’ body was found on February 6 in a Kuwait City apartment that had reportedly been abandoned for more than a year. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said her body bore torture marks and there were indications she was strangled.
Her death is the latest overseas tragedy to befall a worker from the Philippines, a major labour exporter with about a tenth of its 100 million people working abroad. The workers have been called the country’s heroes because the income they send home has propped up the South-East Asian nation’s economy for decades, accounting for about 10 per cent of annual gross domestic product.
Philippine officials are under increasing pressure to do more to monitor the safety of its worldwide diaspora of mostly house maids, construction workers and labourers. There are also calls for the government to boost employment and living standards at home, where nearly one in four people live in poverty, so that fewer people need to find work abroad.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano stood with the Demafelis family at the airport on Friday and said a prayer.
“Her death is very tragic but will also be a rallying point for all of the government agencies to be more aggressive abroad in helping our OFWs be protected,” Mr Cayetano said, using the acronym for overseas foreign workers.
Mr Duterte has ordered a ban on the deployment of new Filipino workers to Kuwait, where he said some Filipina workers have committed suicide due to abuses.
Mr Cayetano said Kuwait had expressed outrage over Demafelis’ death and promised do everything it could to render justice. He said the Philippines lodged a protest over the case and at least six other recent deaths, mostly of Filipino housemaids, in Kuwait and asked that the Philippine embassy be given access to investigations by Kuwaiti authorities.
The Demafelis family told Associated Press that Joanna was 29 years old and the sixth of nine children born into a poor farming family in the central province of Iloilo. She left for Kuwait in 2014 to be employed by a Syrian and Lebanese couple and had never told anyone back home that she was being mistreated.
Kuwaiti police believe Demafelis had been hired by a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife who later left the country, according to local media reports citing police. Authorities found her body when they raided the apartment over an eviction notice.
It s not clear how the woman remained missing for so long or if Kuwaiti police had requested extradition for the Lebanese man and his Syrian wife. Police said the two are wanted on suspicion of writing bad cheques.
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