Immigration bureau steps up drive vs trafficking, corruption

By Caroline J. Howard, ANC

Posted at Nov 10 2010 01:21 PM | Updated as of Nov 11 2010 08:47 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The Bureau of Immigration (BI) is strengthening efforts to help fight cases of human trafficking and rampant corruption in the agency.
Speaking on ANC's "The Rundown," Atty. Ronaldo Ledesma Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the Bureau of Immigration, admitted authorities have been lax with the implementation of the Anti-Trafficking Law.
"We found there are directives issued to immigration officers, that for as long as a passenger has a valid visa, let them go. We were taken aback. Why the liberal attitude when we have a 2003 anti-trafficking law?"
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ordered all courts to fast-track the disposition of cases involving violations of Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.

In June this year, the US State Department placed the Philippines under Tier 2 of its Human Trafficking Watch list, citing the country's failure to meet the agency's standards, widespread corruption and an inefficient judicial system which limit the prosecution of trafficking cases.

Anti-trafficking drive

In an attempt to correct the unflattering image, and as part of ongoing reforms in the agency, Ledesma said they are implementing tougher measures, beginning with reshuffling immigration officers in the country's airports amid reports some personnel connive with human trafficking syndicates.

"We're trying to strictly enforce the Anti-Trafficking Law. We reshuffled immigration personnel in NAIA [Ninoy Aquino International Airport] 1, 2 and 3 after reports these were the concentration of human trafficking activities for a significant time, and our concern is it might overtake the money generated by illegal drug trade," he said.
Citing an inventory by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) on immigration personnel, which showed the agency had more than 1,000 confidential agents when it didn't even have 800 or 900 agents in its roster, Ledesma said they have now reduced the number of confidential agents and subjected them to tighter scrutiny.

Reforms in the agency

"We've implemented a program to screen agents getting into the bureau. We're coming up with standards: expertise in surveillance operations, with previous immigration experience before they are accepted in the bureau as a confidential agent," he said.
Ledesma said charges of qualified trafficking are being evaluated against 20 immigration officers in Clark, Pampanga, who were suspended in July for their alleged involvement in human trafficking activities at the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Clark, Pampanga. He said that one of them, who turned state witness, claimed that accountability goes all the way up the ranks of the agency. 
Ledesma added other reforms in the agency include increasing their manpower by 50%, and strengthening their staff with adequate training. "We need more immigration personnel. In fact, we're trying to come out with a new plantilla item that will increase manpower at NAIA."

Rampant corruption

Amid reports of rampant corruption in the agency, Ledesma said they have also implemented a 5:30 p.m. quarantine rule for immigration personnel.
"We have persistent reports deals were taking place in the alien registration division and other areas.  Some travel agents are making deals with the extension of visas, the issuance of registration papers, the issuance of certificates, etc. but there are no cashiers operating at that time, no one to issue receipts. That's why I instituted a quarantine rule by 5:30 p.m.," Ledesma explained.
Ledesma issued the policy in August to prevent employees from engaging in illegal transactions which happen after office hours.
Transactions include the illegal extension of foreigners' visas.  He noted the collateral benefit for the agency, which saved P5,000 on power costs in the first month, and P57,000 by second month.
In an attempt to fix the image problem hounding the agency, Ledesma said they are also conducting customer relationship training for their immigration officers.
"Our vision is to make the airport a different place for passengers.  What we want is when passengers enter the immigration zone, it's like they're entering a hotel. They'll be treated courteously."
He added they are also considering putting up a visa-upon-arrival program for foreign investors, beginning with those from China, to make the country more attractive to foreign investors.
"Background information needs to be conducted before granting visas, for the purpose of ensuring only legitimate investors will be welcome to do business in the Philippines," he said.