An investigation should be launched into the deaths of Philippine nationals in Saudi Arabia, a leading bishop has urged, as the country begins repatriating hundreds of deceased nationals from the kingdom.

Over 2.3 million Filipinos are believed to be working overseas, and remittances from these Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) are an important source of income in the country.

Saudi Arabia is the most popular destination for OFW’s, with over one million Filipinos working in the country. Philippine nationals have often complained of abusive working conditions in the country, including unsafe working conditions, unpaid labor, confiscation of passports, and physical and sexual assaults.

The Ambassador of the Philippines to Saudi Arabia, Adnan Alonto, has said there have been at least 353 recent deaths of Filipinos in the country, with 107 attributed to the COVID-19 coronavirus and the rest due to “natural causes.”

“[They died of] natural causes mostly. There were only a few deaths related to controversy. There were a few crime-related deaths, but most of the non-COVID-related deaths are [due to] natural causes,” Alonto said.

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, the vice chairman of the bishops’ Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People, said there “should be investigation for the specific causes of death in order to prevent and avoid future loss of life.”

The government in the Philippines has come under fire for allowing 50 Philippine nationals to be buried in Saudi Arabia as opposed to being repatriated to their homeland.

In an open letter to the government, family members said that the deceased “be given the rightful memorial and be allowed to come home one last time.”

“We ask that the government include our departed OFWs in the repatriation plans and that the families be given the opportunity to assist our government in the cremation of our fallen heroes,” the letter says.

The Philippine government chartered three planes to repatriate the bodies of the rest of the deceased, but the Saudi government has said the operation must be carried out by the end of the week.

In addition, 23,000 Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia have requested the Philippine government return them home.

Alonto has also come under fire for downplaying press reports of Filipinos – many of whom have lost their jobs due to the pandemic – digging through the garbage in Riyadh to find food to eat.

“If reports reaching me are true, I’m disappointed with some of our people who have resorted to theatrics to catch attention. Fact is food assistance was given. Mamulot ng basura? [Picking up trash?] C’mon!” Alonto said on Twitter.

Marlon Gatdula, the Saudi Arabia chair for Migrante, an advocacy group for OFWs, said the ambassador “should check his privilege.”

“He can say what he said because he still has his job and continues to receive his huge salary. If Alonto had tried to live for three months with the one-time assistance given to OFWs, he would know that OFWs scavenging for food are not merely engaging in theatrics or are just trying to call the public’s attention,” Gatdula said.

“Ambassador Alonto should stop covering up the government’s uselessness amidst the pandemic by shaming distressed OFWs. His government treats us OFWs like garbage. He should focus his time and energy in trying to fix that,” he continued

Gatdula accused the Philippine embassy of “snail-paced services” for Philippine nations.

When you need help, you have to call many times, but no one will answer your call. It is no coincidence that many OFWs have not received any assistance from the government yet,” he added.

Santos called on the government to facilitate the repatriation of the dead Filipinos, so their loved ones can “give their last respects.”

“We, Filipinos, have high respect for the dead. We honor the dead. They are sacred to us. It is just and proper to give them proper, dignified burial,” the bishop said.

He also called on the government to “correct what is wrong, to amend some mistakes and to improve the working conditions of our OFWs.”

Santos also asked priests to offer a triduum of Masses from June 26 to 28 for the deceased OFWs.

“May God, in His mercy, welcome them in Heaven, our true Home. May God in His love give strength and solace to the bereaved families,” the bishop said.