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.
“I hope my sister will be given justice,” Demafelis’ brother, Jojit Demafelis, later told reporters, a sentiment echoed by boxer and politician Manny Pacheco.
Filipina housemaid Joanna Daniela Demafelis, working in Kuwait, lost contact with her family since May 2016. Manila authorities started looking for her in Kuwait since then, but gave up after the agency that recruited her to the Gulf country shut down.
Demafelis’ body was found in a freezer on February 6 and was identified through DNA test. The 29-year-old’s body was discovered in her employer’s freezer at their apartment in Kuwait city of Hawally. The apartment reportedly had been abandoned for more than a year.
Autopsy reports suggest she had been tortured and strangled to death. It is suspected that the previous occupants of the residence, a Lebanese man, Nader Issam Assaf, and his Syrian wife, Mona Hassoun, who vacated the premises nearly one year prior, had killed the maid and left her in the freezer.
A Filipina witness claimed that Demafelis had told her that the former’s employers were hurting her and her salary was delayed.
Joanna Daniela Demafelis had told friends that her employers were hurting her and her salary was delayed.
Assaf, his wife and two children reportedly, fled Kuwait in November 2016. The apartment’s owner only recently got a court order to forcibly evict the tenants who had not paid rent for the year.
Kuwaiti authorities discovered that the rental agreement was made in the wife’s name, but the maid’s entry visa had been sponsored by Assaf, who had filed a missing person’s report on Demafelis, just two days prior to the couple fleeing Kuwait.
The male suspect is also wanted for several cases including issuing bad checks. He is already scheduled to serve a 14-day jail term on some of the charges.
The discovery of the crime coincided with a statement issued by the Philippines suspending its workers from serving in Kuwait because of a string of domestic abuse taking place leading to a number of suicide cases.
Her death is the latest overseas tragedy to befall a worker from the Philippines, a major labor 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 Southeast Asian nation’s economy for decades, accounting for about 10 percent of annual gross domestic product.
Joanna Daniela Demafelis’ sister and brother Jessica in full of grief receive her casket at Manilla airport Friday
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano stood with the Demafelis family at the airport 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,” Cayetano told reporters, using the acronym for overseas foreign workers.
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.
Cayetano said Kuwait had expressed outrage over Demafelis’ death and promised to 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.
Demafelis’ family told The Associated Press on Friday 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.
Family members hold up the slain woman’s photo
Philippine officials say they are re-examining how to better detect and stop abuse of its workers abroad. A Filipino labor officer in Kuwait has been recalled after reportedly failing to adequately help Demafelis’ family when they reported that she was missing.
“If there is a complaint already, even if we can help them, it’s still too late like when they’re already dead,” Cayetano said at a news conference. “They should have been helped when we found out that there was abuse or as soon as they lost contact with their family.”
The sheer number of Filipino workers abroad makes monitoring their wellbeing an overwhelming task. That is often complicated by the workers not having proper travel and work documents, such as in Kuwait where nearly 11,000 of the more than 252,000 Filipino workers are in the country illegally or not properly authorized.
The Philippines has banned the deployment of its workers some countries, but many desperate Filipinos chose to stay, even in war-torn Iraq and Syria.
“Despite the offer to repatriate, to pay for their tickets, many chose to stay because there is no employment or fewer employment possibilities or they’ll earn much less money in the Philippines,” Cayetano said.
He said the long-term solution was for the Philippines to strengthen its economy so Filipinos won’t be forced to look for greener meadows.
Describing Duterte and past presidents “false messiahs,” pro-labor group, Migrante International, said it’s ironic that Duterte should ask Kuwait to improve the plight of Filipino workers , when Philippines migration is fueled by soaring commodity price hikes and difficult labor conditions back home.
Migrant worker Joanna Daniela Demafelis missing and unaccounted for in Kuwait, more than a year
Noting that 82 Filipino workers died in Kuwait in 2016, with that number rising to 103 last year, president Duterte last week said he did not want a quarrel with Kuwait, but may resort to drastic steps, such as a complete ban on the deployment of Filipino workers, if Kuwait and other governments fail to safeguard Filipinos.
“What are you doing to my countrymen? And if I were to do it to your citizens here, would you be happy?” Duterte observed.
Interpol have been notified that Assaf and his wife are fugitives, wanted on suspicion of murder committed in Kuwait.
Meanwhile Assaf’s relatives in Beirut, are blaming the crime on his wife. The claim he is controlled by his wife. He cannot even smoke in front of her, the said.
“It’s impossible. My nephew would never kill anyone,” his aunt told local paper, Al-Rai, adding that she raised him after his father left his mother.
“The last time we saw him was around two years ago when he came for his father’s funeral. He then returned to Kuwait and we later learnt that he went to Syria,” she added.
“Maybe his wife is behind the crime. She is edgy and he always feared her. He once let her kick his mother from their house in Kuwait,” Assaf’s cousin said.