MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine government vowed yesterday to intensify the campaign against human trafficking in the country following a preliminary report of a United Nations expert saying this perennial problem has not declined.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said there has been significant progress in the campaign against human smuggling as cited by UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons Joy Ngozi Ezeilo during their meeting last Friday at the conclusion of the latter’s fact-finding mission in the country.
De Lima, who chairs the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), said measures are already in place and additional reforms to improve this effort as suggested by Ezeilo would be considered.
“We believe that through partnership and political will, and through the lessons that we have shared through this mission, we are assured of our eventual victory against human trafficking in a world where the inalienable rights and transcendent dignity of every human being is guaranteed by both State and society,” she said in her address.
De Lima reported during the meeting the accomplishments of IACAT, which Ezeilo said were proof of the government’s “strong commitment” to the drive against cross-border human trafficking.
“We take this opportunity to recapitulate the updates provided by the Philippines in the four areas of prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership under the mandate provided by the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003,” De Lima said.
De Lima said preventive measures have been put in place through joint efforts of the DOJ, law enforcement agencies, and the Bureau of Immigration.
Since 2011, the agents of the bureau have undertaken the strict inspection of travel, employment and financial documents of outgoing passengers in airports and seaports to identify and protect trafficking victims in transit, while duly respecting their constitutional and human rights.
The DOJ chief said a total of 736 persons victimized by trafficking syndicates were rescued from April 2011 to September 2012 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport alone.
To supplement its efforts, IACAT has also implemented a wide-ranging public education campaign to inform vulnerable sectors of the dangers of human trafficking, most notably through the use of strategically placed television consoles that carry infomercials, discussions, and documentaries on trafficking in persons, added De Lima.
In terms of partnership, she bared: “We are also continuing to expand our cooperation with foreign governments, and IACAT has forged strong partnerships with the Global Alliance for the Protection of Children Online and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit to protect minor victims of exploitation,” she said.
Just last Oct. 30, IACAT conducted a joint operation with the Netherlands against a group suspected of committing transnational trafficking and other crimes in Amsterdam and Manila for the purpose of labor exploitation.
Justice Undersecretary Jose Vicente Salazar, officer-in-charge of the council, also reported that they have provided intermediate treatment and counseling facilities for rescued victims of human trafficking.
The agency has assisted in the processing of 920 overseas Filipino workers repatriated from conflict-hit Syria and initiated a project to expand and enhance the Philippine Anti-Trafficking Database through the assistance of the Netherlands.
In the prosecution aspect, the IACAT officials told Ezeilo of the convictions of 100 people for violation of Republic Act 9208 (Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003), 70 of which were secured by DOJ under the administration of President Aquino pursuant to its program of providing “a truly impartial system of institutions that deliver equal justice to rich or poor.”
“The Philippines is unreservedly committed to combating and eradicating trafficking in persons, which is rightly condemned by the law of nations and the conscience of humanity. The programs we are now undertaking form only the spearhead of the ever-expanding scope of our campaign,” De Lima said.
She, however, admitted there are still challenges facing the campaign against human trafficking in the country.
The IACAT Secretariat has also monitored and reported a total of 1,693 cases pending in trial courts and in the DOJ, of which 364 were filed just last year.
To effectively address the problem, Ezeilo suggested the creation of a specialized court to expedite the trial of human trafficking cases.
She said the government should also scale up prevention initiatives that would address the root causes of trafficking, including demand of sexual services and cheap labor.
“I urge the government to continue to show leadership and mobilize adequate resources to combat trafficking in persons, protect and assist victims, while increasing opportunities for legal, gainful and non-exploitative labor migration,” she said.
The UN official concluded on Friday her five-day mission to the Philippines that brought her to trafficking hotspots like Manila, Cebu and Zamboanga.
Her visit was aimed at examining the situation of trafficked persons and the impact of trafficking measures in the country.
Law’s amendment pushed
Sen. Loren Legarda echoed De Lima’s statement that the Philippines has made significant strides against human trafficking even as she pushed for the approval of the proposed amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.
Legarda said the statistics are indications of modest but positive strides the country has achieved in the battle against trafficking.
Even the US Trafficking Report for 2011 cited that while the Philippine government has yet to “comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making significant efforts to do so.”
The report even cited the “notable efforts” made by authorities to address trafficking-related corruption.
The report also noted that the government “enacted numerous measures and policies to improve institutional responses to human trafficking for this year and in future years, such as increased training of judicial, law enforcement, and diplomatic officials on trafficking issues.”
“These efforts cannot be dismissed. In the midst of these accomplishments, however, we need to do more. It is for this reason that the Senate and the House moved to amend the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act to improve our capacity to battle this social scourge,” Legarda said.
Legarda also expressed concern on the statement of Ezeilo about the alarming global problem of anti-trafficking.
She said it is symptomatic of the “crushing poverty” facing people around the world.
“It would be prudent to carefully study the efforts undertaken, over the years, to identify other gaps that could probably be addressed by stronger policy measures, and improvement in our law enforcement, prosecution, justice system, and even programs and services for trafficked persons and those who are vulnerable to trafficking,” Legarda said.
“That is the approach we have taken in seeking to amend the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (RA 9208) of 2003,” said Legarda, sponsor of Senate Bill 2625 or the proposed Expanded Anti-Trafficking Act of 2012. – With Christina Mendez