OPINION: Filipinos who fall victim to trafficking overseas

Jose Galang

Posted at Jun 29 2017 02:34 AM

While the Philippines sustained its rating as a Tier 1 country in the newly released 2017 edition of the US State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report”, the magnitude of the trafficking problem underlines the reality that a lot more needs to be done.

Human trafficking, which Pope Francis just recently called “an atrocious scourge” and asked for partnerships of different sectors in the “prevention, protection and prosecution” of traffickers, has taken new shapes and faces in recent years, particularly with the use of new technology in the nefarious activities that exploit vulnerabilities of people, mostly the poor. The Tier 1 rating is really not something that gives the country reason to jump up and down to celebrate.

Obviously the Tier 1 classification results more from the commitment seen by the US State Department in the Philippines’ “serious and sustained efforts” rather than actual gains achieved against human trafficking. Although the country met “minimum standards” in the campaign against trafficking, it has lagged in expanding the availability of and quality of protection and assistance services for male victims and failed to vigorously investigate and prosecute officials allegedly involved in trafficking crimes or expand pilot program to address the backlog of trafficking cases in the country, the newly launched report points out.

In the Tier 1 group are 36 countries, mostly advanced economies in the developed world. The Philippines last year became the first Southeast Asian country to make it to the top circle in the global campaign against human trafficking. The US State Department’s report classifies countries into four tiers.

How PH reached Tier 1

The Philippines was “promoted” to Tier 1 category for the first time in July 2016, largely as a result of big gains in convictions of traffickers and government officials involved in trafficking. These gains achieved through the channeling of more resources by the previous administration to the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT). The previous administration more than tripled convictions of traffickers and nearly quadrupled the number of victims rescued.

The new Trafficking in Persons Report notes that in the period April 1 to December 31, 2016, a total of 553 suspected trafficking cases were investigated by various Philippine agencies involved in human trafficking control. These cases led to the arrest of 272 suspects, higher by 121 from arrests made in the previous year.

The government initiated prosecution of 441 alleged traffickers, lower compared to the previous year’s 569, and secured convictions of 55 traffickers, higher from 42 the year before. The 2016 cases involved 131 victims, 78 of whom were children. Sentences imposed ranged from 15 years to life imprisonment, with most offenders sentenced to life imprisonment, according to the government data.

Still, at the end of 2016, there were more than 1,100 trafficking cases pending in courts, filed in 2016 or in previous years. This backlog, according to the US State Department report, was due to “endemic inefficiencies” such as non-continuous trials, large caseloads, limited resources, and, in some cases, corruption.

Among the challenges that affected the work of police and prosecutors were the difficulty in obtaining search warrants, insufficient personnel, inadequate resources for operations logistics and computer evidence analysis, and the need for training on presenting digital evidence in court.

Cause for alarm

Cited by the report as an “alarming” development is the introduction of new technologies in the sexual exploitation of children. The trend has been noted in many countries including the Philippines, where numerous communities reportedly earn income from this type of child exploitation.

“Online sessions can be conducted at low cost using a cellphone or a computer with a webcam. Connections to prospective clients are made easily; clients remain anonymous and make payments by wire transfer. Children, often naked, have been exploited on camera—including by family members or neighbors—and coerced into exhibiting themselves and performing sex acts for the viewing of individuals watching online,” the report says.

The online sexual exploitation of children presents new challenges for law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and victim service providers, the report says, adding that law enforcement and prosecutors in most countries have little training or experience in detecting this crime, conducting online investigations, obtaining evidence from internet service providers, and presenting evidence in court.

State Department recommendations

There is a big bundle of recommendations made by the US State Department for the Philippines to strengthen its fight against human trafficking. These tasks include efforts to increase: 

1) the availability of specialized comprehensive services that address the specific needs of trafficking victims, with a particular focus on expanding access to mental health care and services for male victims; 

2) expedited victim-centered prosecution of trafficking cases, especially in cases involving child victims;

3) the investigation and prosecution of officials for trafficking-related offenses.

Also, the State Department urged the Philippines to increase efforts to identify internal labor trafficking victims, especially children, and prosecute labor trafficking cases, and to expand the victim and Witness Protection Program to cover an increased percentage of trafficking victims throughout criminal justice proceedings.

Programs aimed at reducing the demand for commercial sex acts, including child sex tourism and online child sexual exploitation, were deemed essential to future progress in the anti-trafficking drive. The State Department also called for expanded government support for long-term specialized services for trafficking victims that may be provided by the government or NGOs.

To prevent “re-traumatization” caused by multiple interviews, the government was asked to facilitate timely reintegration of child victim witnesses with community-based follow-up services. Additionally, more training was recommended for community members and military and law enforcement personnel on appropriate methods to protect children officially disengaged from armed groups and vigorously investigate allegations of abuse by officials.

Filipinos as victims overseas

In various sections of the US State Department report, the sad picture of Filipinos falling victim to traffickers even in the most unlikely countries, contrasting the general view of overseas Filipinos as hardworking employees religiously sending part of their earnings to their families back home.

In Afghanistan, for instance, Filipinos are said to be among women and girls from such other countries as Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka and China subjected to sex trafficking. Under the pretense of high-paying employment opportunities, the US State Department report says, some labor-recruiting agencies lure the foreign workers to Afghanistan, where they are promptly subjected to forced labor after arrival.

Other Filipino women searching for good-paying jobs abroad to escape poverty in their homeland are reportedly falling victim to similar exploitation in such countries as Albania, the Bahamas, Cyprus, and Hungary. Filipino men and women have also been victimized by traffickers—some of whom reportedly promised marriage or domestic work in households—in Bahrain, Brunei, Malaysia, El Salvador, Israel, Jordan, South Korea, Micronesia, Morocco, Norway, Romania, and even in Papua New Guinea.

Women from the Philippines and China are recruited to work in Palau as waitresses or clerks, but some are subsequently forced into prostitution in karaoke bars or massage parlors, many operated by Taiwanese, Filipinos, or Palau citizens, the report says.

In Solomon Islands, government inspections discovered trafficking victims doing forced labor that included victims from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In Thailand, women, men, boys and girls from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Sri Lanka, Russia, Uzbekistan, and the Philippines have been found to be coerced into forced labor or sex industry.

The US State Department’s report stresses that human trafficking is “an assault on human dignity” and should be penalized accordingly. It said that no government can hold human traffickers accountable or address the needs of victims without stringent and comprehensive human trafficking laws, strong enforcement and prosecutorial capacity funded with adequate rresources, and an informed judiciary.

“Victims of human trafficking deserve timely and meaningful access to justice through a system that respects the rule of law and due process rights. Without these measures, human trafficking will continue to flourish,” the report concludes.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.