Editor’s note: On September 24, 2007, the Philippines will host a regional forum on child abuse and neglect. Child trafficking would be one of the many issues expected to be tackled in this three-day conference.
MANILA — RUBY, 17, felt her heart bob with the ferry boat taking her and three other girls to Manila as she overheard their male escort described how “fresh and young” they were to another male passenger.
Then there were also the cursory glances toward her body –not my face, nor my eyes, she told herself as odd. She hugged herself tightly to bolster a belief her decision to work as a household help would raise her family from poverty in General Santos City.
From that southern Philippine city, thousands of kilometers from the capital of Manila, Ruby would have been sold –like others before and after her trip, she suspects– like merchandise in a trade profiting from human bondage and sexual slavery.
And according to a United States Department of Justice report, the movement or migration of people is non-essential to the debate.
It’s the context of that movement or migration that is at the heart of the criminal sale of young women and children like Ruby.
“The force, fraud, or coercion exercised on that person to perform or remain in service to another is the defining element of human trafficking in the modern usage. The person who is trapped in compelled service after initially migrating voluntarily or taking a job willingly is considered a trafficking victim,” the 240-page report, released in June, said.
The report comes before nonprofit and anti-trafficking groups helping Filipinos like Ruby, like the nonprofit Visayan Forum Foundation Inc., International Justice Mission, and Philippines Against Child Trafficking, take action against a formidable challenge in these times of free movements of people and commodities.
“Movement is not necessary,” the report continued adding that “Movement to the new location is incidental.”
“Any person who is recruited, harbored, provided, or obtained through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, forced labor, or commercial sex qualifies as a trafficking victim,” the report noted.
The report cited as an example a boy “forced to beg on the streets of Cairo or New York is as much a victim of trafficking in persons” as the foreign worker brought to the US “on a legal seasonal farm work visa and then forced to work in conditions not described in the original contract, with the threat of being deported without pay if he fails to comply with the ‘new rules’.”
Hence, some of the nearly 3,000 Filipinos leaving for work abroad everyday could be considered potential or actual victims of trafficking, based on this view.
BUT THE US government report scored countries like the Philippines on the trafficking of migrant workers, citing that the responsibility for their protection lies in the source governments.
The past trafficking in persons reports “focused attention on the conditions faced by many migrant workers legally contracted to perform low-skilled work in developed countries but who were later subjected to fraudulent misrepresentation of work conditions, debt bondage, or forced labor conditions at the hands of employers in destination countries.”
The latest report noted that while the attention “focused largely on the responsibilities of destination countries,…research is showing that source countries permit or encourage some exploitative practices that either place migrant workers in involuntary servitude before they leave for work abroad, or place them in unfair debts that are precursors to involuntary servitude in the destination country.”
“Governments of major source countries of migrant workers have obligations too –obligations to protect these workers’ interests by limiting pre-departure fees and ‘commissions’ to reasonable levels that do not contribute to situations of debt bondage.”
Of the 151 countries that the US 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report categorized, 27 were named as destination countries where migrant workers are subjected to trafficking or near-trafficking conditions like involuntary domestic servitude through the use of force or coercion, such as physical (including sexual) or emotional abuse.
Notable among these countries are Brunei, Iraq and the Solomon Islands, cited by the report as “special cases”.
Brunei is one because as a destination country for men and women who migrate legally from the Philippines and four other Asian countries for domestic or low-skilled labor, “the lack of reliable data makes it unclear whether there is a significant number of victims in the country.”
Iraq is another because despite an official ban prohibiting Filipinos from working there, workers “are increasingly coerced into positions in Iraq with threats of abandonment in Kuwait or Jordan, starvation, or force”.
The third is Solomon Islands where the report said there is “anecdotal evidence that young women from Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, the People’s Republic of China, the Philippines, and Malaysia are trafficked …for the purpose of sexual exploitation on foreign ships and in logging camps.”
Government and NGO estimates on the number of women trafficked range from 300,000 to 400,000 and the number of children trafficked range from 60,000 to 100,000.
According to the US government reports, the number of child victims in the Philippines range from 20,000 to 100,000, with foreign tourists, particularly other Asians, as perpetrators.
RUBY NARRATED to the OFW Journalism Consortium she and the other recruits dropped the case against the recruiter who promised them a monthly salary of P1,000 as salesladies.
“They could harm our families in the province,” Ruby said citing that she submitted a bio-data to the recruiter who posted job ads in a public market in General Santos City.
“They have information on me. I applied because I thought they were a legitimate job placement agency,” she explained.
The other three girls aged 15, 18 and 20, shared the same process as well as fears.
Social worker Marichel Escalante, 26, who works in a safe house managed by the Visayan Forum, said 30 percent of the victims they’ve helped were being prepped for prostitution in Japan.
Since 2001, the foundation was able to assist 5,482 Filipinos tagged as victims of human trafficking.
These, according to Escalante, were those brought to halfway houses they have established in four major ports in the country in partnership with the Philippine Ports Authority. The ports include Manila North Harbor, Batangas, Matnog in Sorsogon and Sasa in Davao City.
Visayan Forum president Ma. Cecilla Oebanda said the number of victims or potential victims of human trafficking may be higher if only all the major ports in the country are being monitored well.
Of the assisted victims, she said 47 percent of them were women ages 18 to 22, the rest were younger men and girls.
Oebanda added some of these women were asked to stay for six months to one year in the country so that they could train first before they were supposed to be deployed abroad.
The region where most of the victims came from was Region 11 or the Davao Region, according to the foundation’s records.
It revealed nearly 20 cases on behalf of 57 trafficked persons were filed in courts since February last year.
The modus operandi of traffickers is to recruit young women, including minors, from the provinces and promise them work in Manila or abroad, Oebanda said.
She added that the recruiter will usually pay for all the travel and food expenses of the potential victims, further sweetening the promises.
There was a 15-year-old from Bacolod City whose handlers slapped her face, burned her with lit cigarettes, or locked her in a room every time she refused to entertain a customer of the recruiter’s nightclub.
Escalante said most of the victims are transported via boats or passenger ships and always en route to Manila.
Before leaving the port of origin, the victims, especially minors, are told to lie about their age, she added.
IN THE recent launch of the Philippine Alliance against Child Trafficking, leader Amihan Abueva said they expect no change in the intensity of trafficking cases this year.
Citing government records of last year, Abueva said that more than a thousand cases were lodged, half of which were from adult women victimized in the country.
It’s the same trend we’re seeing this year, Abueva, who is also executive director of nonprofit group Ecpat International Inc., told reporters.
“Two-thirds of reported cases are children. But the figures are not a good gauge of the magnitude of the problem because many cases, we believe, are not reported and victims and those who escape do not receive assistance,” she added.
Escalante of Visayan Forum advises that women, in particular, should acquire tons of data on those enticing them with work in Manila or abroad.
“They should inform their parents or the elderly, get complete details on the recruiter, know the kind of work being offered, the complete address of the place where they would be brought, and memorize key contact numbers,” Escalante said.
In addition, she said recruits should also share these pieces of information with their families.
She said as soon the recruits arrived in their destination, they should contact their family and give them the complete address of where they are.
Likewise, if escape at the port is possible, they advise potential victims to go to halfway houses that the government is building.
Aside from the Batangas City port, the Philippine government announced plans to construct new halfway houses in Zamboanga Port, Iloilo Port, and Lipata Port in Surigao del Norte.
Still, despite these efforts, the US Department of State placed the Philippine government under Tier 2 for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
The report recommends that source countries like the Philippines should “negotiate agreements with destination countries to obtain formal guarantees of their citizen’s rights while working abroad.”
The report also noted greater focus on the illegal confiscation of travel documents –passports, identity cards and airline tickets– since this practice is used “as a means of gaining and exercising control over a victim.”
“Without these vital documents, migrants are vulnerable to arrest, punishment, and/or deportation,” the report said.
“Foreign governments are encouraged to criminalize the confiscation or withholding of travel documents of migrants as a means to confine the migrant or keep him or her in a form of work or service,” it added.