Mysterious OFW Death Cases Pile Up

by Anne Marxze D. Umil

MANILA – Another victim of a mysterious death while overseas, 22 year old Romelyn Eroy Ibanez’s body arrived home, with her left eye, tongue, brain, heart and internal organs missing, from Saudi Arabia on August 24, 2011 – almost a year after she died on September 2, 2010.

Romelyn was from North Cotabato. She was hired by the Solid Works Manpower Agency in Cotabato, it was stated in her contract that she would work as nursing aid for Wafa Al Harkaan and Dr. Sulta Al Otaibi Medical Polyclinic Co.. However she ended up as a domestic helper to an employer named Musfer Yahya Musfer Al-Abbas.

According to the death certificate, the cause of Romelyn’s death was suicide. An autopsy report issued by the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia claimed that the cause of her death was “poisoning resulting from drinking Clorox acid resulting to complications.”

The Ministry’s findings contradicted the forensic exam made by a certain Dr. Mayma, which revealed that she sustained stab wounds and several cigarette burns. Dr. Mayma said in his report that “it is impossible for the subject OFW to commit suicide inflicting on herself several stab wounds and at the same time taking in acid.”

Two years after Romelyn’s death, her family still cries out for justice. Her sister Mira wrote Migrante – Middle East asking for an update on her sister’s case. She said she already asked the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in North Cotabato and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) regional office but was not able to get any update on her sister’s case.

“We would want to know what happened to the reinvestigation of my sister’s case,” Mira wrote in her email to John Leonard Monterna, Migrante—Middle East regional coordinator.

“We went to OWWA to ask them (for an update) but they can’t give us any information. They have many files on my sister’s case but whenever I am there they cannot give me any explanation why they don’t have any update on my sister’s case,” she added.

Monterona lambasted the inaction of the government. “I was shocked and disgusted upon reading the email of Mira informing me that the OWWA in North Cotabato and the DFA regional office could not give an update on the reinvestigation,” said Monterona.

In November 2010, Monterona said, an official of the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh confirmed that they filed a case seeking to reinvestigate the death of Romelyn. The same was conveyed to the Ibanez family months before her body was repatriated.

“Maybe they (Philippine embassy in Riyadh) are not following up the case,” Monterona said.

Mysterious death

Like Terril Atienza, Romelyn died under mysterious circumstances.

According to the fact sheet that was provided, Romelyn went to Saudi Arabia last June 10, 2010. On September 7, 2010, three months after she departed from the Philippines, Mira received a call from her sister telling her that she would be going home soon. “She called about 9:00 a.m. and she told me that she would go home and she would sign her papers the next day. She said she was tired and she didn’t like her job anymore.”

Two days later, on September 9, 2010, the Ibanez family received a letter from the Philippine Overseas Labor Office-Overseas workers Welfare Administration (POLO-OWWA) informing them of Romelyn’s death. Her body was repatriated after almost one year without any explanation why it took that long.

Romelyn’s body was desecrated; aside from missing an eye and other organs, her stomach was empty and was stuffed with cotton. There is a stitch from her forehead surrounding the entire head, a long stitch from the upper part of her breast up to her genitals and another stitch from her nose up to her eyebrow. Mira said they suspect that Ibanez was raped before she was murdered.

“Upon seeing my sister’s body, my cousin told us that someone called her after the incident happened. A woman introduced herself as Romelyn’s co-worker. She got my cousin’s number after Romelyn used her cellphone to call us,” Mira said in the facts heet.

Ibanez’s co-worker communicated to their cousin after four months and told them what happened.

According to the co-worker who did not disclose her name out of fear, she arrived first and worked with employer named Nora Mahdi Muhmil Al-Abbas. She said her employer offered to buy her eye to give to her child who has a problem in his eye. She did not agree to her employer’s proposal and was detained in her employer’s house since then. She noticed that their employer became nice to Romelyn. One day she heard Romelyn pleading and crying for help. It took hours before the whole house went silent. When she peeked through the window of her room, she saw two of her employer’s nephews going down from the second floor. When she was sure that there was no one in the house she destroyed the lock of the room where she was detained. When she got out of the room she looked for Romelyn. She saw the victim in the kitchen with a knife stabbed in her shoulder. She sustained many stab wounds and was almost dying.

Romelyn’s co-worker took her outside of the house and called a taxi being driven, coincidentally, by a Filipino. She pleaded for help and asked the driver to bring Romelyn to the hospital.

The co-worker told her cousin to check if Romelyn still had her eye because their employer once had an interest in her eye before the incident happened. They (employer) wanted to buy Romelyn’s eyes but she also disagreed.

Mira said initially, her cousin did not believe the woman who introduced herself as Romelyn’s co-worker. It was when Romelyn’s body arrived with missing parts that she realized that the co-worker’s testimony was true. Unfortunately, the woman (Romelyn’s co-worker) did not want to get involved in the case.

Meanwhile, Nora Mahdi Muhmil Al-Abbas’s testimony is different from Romelyn’s co-worker’s statement. Al-Abbas claimed that Ibanez requested to be allowed to go home. However, she said, she told her that only her husband could finalize the required procedures but he was out of the kingdom. Romelyn was allowed to communicate with the recruitment agency; she said that she heard the officer in charge shouting at Romelyn. The officer in charge then talked to Al-Abbas who was told that Romelyn would continue working for them.

According to her written statement, at around 10:00 a.m., she heard Romelyn crying and screaming and she tried to calm her down and left her alone. An hour later, she claimed that she heard voices and when she went to check, she found Romelyn lying on the floor with something flowing out of her mouth. She said Romelyn tried to catch her so she closed the door. After a couple of minutes, she claimed she heard a strange voice and found Romelyn stabbing her neck with a knife and there was blood on her hand and stomach. She said she then called her son and contacted the police. The Red Crescent came to the scene and transferred Romelyn to the King Fahd University Hospital in Khobar.

Mira, Romelyn’s sister also said that the OWWA refuses to give the remaining financial claim. “My mother keeps on coming back to OWWA. In January 2011, OWWA gave P100,000 ($2,325) saying that it is only partial and they will only give the rest when Romelyn’s death certificate has been submitted. When we gave the death certificate, the OWWA said they will not be giving any benefits since Romely committed suicide.”

She added that OWWA did not help them repatriate Romelyn’s body. The OWWA told them that their only concern is to provide insurance and repatriating Romelyn’s body is not their concern anymore.

Several other cases of mysterious deaths

Romelyn’s case is only one of the many cases received by Migrante—Middle East. Monterona said they constantly receive reports of OFWs who died under questionable and vague circumstances on an average of two cases every month.

“The figure is based on the combined reports from our Migrante chapters in the Middle East citing local news reports and from the kin of the OFWs who have sought our assistance,” Monterona added. He also clarified that the figure they got does not include those reported to various Philippine diplomatic posts.

“We are quite certain there are other cases of ‘mysterious’ deaths reported to the Philippine embassies and consulates and its satellite offices,” he added. He said that most of the victims were household service workers or domestic helpers.

Monterona cited previous unresolved cases Migrante-ME has documented:

a) OFW Rowena Peremne Arceo, 33, from Cordillera province who also died under mysterious circumstances on October 22, 2008 in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia;

b) OFW Joy Cabansi Sarto, 28, from Echague, Isabela province, murdered by her Arab employer on September 22, 2009;

c) OFW Laura (not her real name), 33, from Ilagan, Isabela, who was raped in Dammam, Saudi Arabia on October 1, 2009;

d) OFW Eugenia Baja, 24, passport holder SS0428627, initial reports said she committed suicide, but the autopsy revealed that Baja bore stab wounds and bruises;

e) OFW Clair (not her real name), in her mid-20s, from Lagawe, Ifugao, who was gang raped by Arabs at her employer’s house sometime in February 2007;

f) OFW Analyn De Pena, 33, from Old Sta. Mesa, Manila allegedly committed suicide sometime in November 2009, but the family believed there was foul play;

g) OFW Marilou Macam Ating, 37, from Lingayen, Pangasinan, who died on November 24, 2008. There are sketchy reports reaching the family that she died after she fell from the fourth floor of her employer’s residence. Her family believed there was foul play leading to her death on November 24, 2008;

The Migrante chapter in the United Arab Emirates has also documented seven cases of mysterious deaths from February to August 2009. These include cases of OFW Roderick Miranda who reportedly hanged himself on February 4; OFW Norayda Ayuman who reportedly jumped from the seventh floor of a building on February 6; OFW Jeffrey Alberto So who reportedly jumped from the third floor of a building on June 13; and OFW Evelyn Lilo who allegedly jumped from a building on August 10; these cases are considered unsolved.

For the past months, Migrante—ME also received reports of OFW deaths in Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria.

Monterona said, amid these numerous unsolved deaths of OFWs , the administration of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III does not appear bothered and until now have done little or nothing at all to provide protection to OFWs who are working as domestic helpers.

Aside from monitoring the status of these cases, Monterona said, his group will be pressuring the DFA to divulge all unsolved cases of OFWs and properly inform their respective families regarding updates.

“Most important is to know what the Philippine embassies and consulates have done in providing protection to our OFWs,” he said.

Monterona noted that even with Aquino’s supposed order to provide assistance and protection to OFWs abroad during his inaugural speech, concerned government agencies such as the DFA and its diplomatic posts, the Department of Labor and Employment, OWWA and POEA still perform poorly in terms of providing assistance and protection to OFWs. (

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