MANILA, Philippines - Boxing icon Manny Pacquiao is championing another cause: the fight against human trafficking.
Having been armed with a mandate in Congress, the elected Sarangani province Representative said he would push for a bigger budget that would allow an inter-agency committee to monitor and put a stop to the problem.
In a speech on Thursday morning before an event attended by legislators, civil society groups and officials from the United States embassy, Pacquiao expressed concern over the rising number of human trafficking cases.
Pacquiao particularly noted that his fellowmen from the Visayas and Mindanao have been victimized.
Gamely posing for the media wearing red boxing gloves, Pacquiao declared an all-out war against human trafficking and announced he is willing to become the poster boy for the campaign.
"I will take part in the public awareness campaign against human trafficking," Pacquiao said.
He said that as a congressman, he will send a formal request letter to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the House committee on appropriations to allocate a bigger budget for the inter-agency committee handling the problem.
Last June, the US State Department retained the Philippines in its Tier 2 watch list because the number of victims is "very significant or is significantly increasing" or there is no significant effort to meet the standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The US State Department also scored the government's failure to address the "significant level of corruption" that leads to an unabated increase in human trafficking incidents in the country.
Despite this, US ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas, Jr. said the US government will not cut the millions of dollars it has allocated to fight human trafficking.
The US government provides the country a $2-million annual fund for the fight against human trafficking.
18 convictions out of 380 cases
Elzadia Washington-Danaux, acting mission director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said the US government is most concerned over the very low conviction rate of human traffickers in the country.
Danaux said that since 2003, there were only 18 convictions. She said a total of 380 cases remain pending in courts.
Some civil society groups fears that the Philippines may lose millions of dollars in aid from the US if it continues to fail in the fight against human trafficking.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos, meanwhile, denied that the government has had a failed campaign. He insisted that a lot has been done by the government to address the problem.
The new administration of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III has started an intensified fight against human trafficking.
Early this week, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ordered the suspension and the filing of administrative charges against 20 immigration officers for alleged human trafficking activities at the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA) in Clark, Pampanga.
De Lima's order reverses the decision of her predecessor, former Justice Secretary Alberto Agra, that exonerated the officers of any involvement in human trafficking activities.
The case stemmed from an exposé of immigration officer Rachel Ong. She accused 15 immigration officers of facilitating the ingress or egress of DMIA passengers with incomplete or falsified documents, colluding with illegal recruiters and human trafficking syndicates in the departure and entry of persons; and, collecting personal payments and receiving favors including sexual favors in exchange for such facilitation and collusion.