The recruiter sounded reassuring. Kaisha (not her real name) still recall how the former, whom she described as a “kaibigan ng kaibigan” (friend of a friend), was able to convince her Buluan, Maguindanao-based father to allow her to seek work in the Middle East. The man is talking about a job opportunity in Syria, and Kaisha’s family does not need to shell out a single centavo to process her papers.
“Sabi ng recruiter, ‘wag kayo mag-alala. Lahat ng gastos sa akin’” (Don’t worry. I’ll shoulder all expenses), Kaisha said. As the fourth in a family of six, the offer is tempting for her. Her parents work in the cornfields as their chief livelihood. The promise of earning $200 a month in Syria would surely help her impoverished family, she thought. In November 2008, after many send-off gatherings, she bade her family goodbye to prepare for her placement. She spent the next 14 months in the recruiter’ “accommodating” place in Taguig City (a city in southern Metro Manila) along with 20 others, mostly girls.
When Kaisha asked the recruiter when her flight would be, she was told that “inaayos pa ang mga papeles mo” (Your papers are still being fixed). Apparently, fixing her papers requires changing her name and birth date for her birth certificate, passport, and visa. Her documents indicate that she’s already 21 though she is just 15.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the “recruitment and transportation of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception…for the purpose of exploitation." The U.S State Department had reported in 2003 that along with drugs and guns, it is one of the most profitable underground businesses worldwide. Official figures on this phenomenon are unreliable since much more cases go unreported. Around 80 % of the victims are women and girls, according to the HumanTrafficking.org website.
“Traffickers clandestinely organize their transport operations via different ports and land routes in the Philippines. Internal trafficking is the springboard for international trafficking,” says the Visayan Forum Foundation (VFF) in its website. VFF, a non-government organization that helps survivors of trafficking, adds that “internal trafficking is the springboard for international trafficking.” “Traffickers operate in underground networks with strong connections to corrupt public officials and transport operators,” VFF elaborated.
Last January, Kaisha’s deployment date finally arrived. The recruiter secured a residence visa for her, even if she does not have any relatives in Syria. Interviewed at the VFF shelter house in Manila South Harbor, she said the recruiter will get her full salary for the first six months of her employment instead of the typical salary reduction scheme to pay off her debts. She was given a three-year contract though the nature of her work was never explained. Instead, the agent instructed her that “kahit ano mangyari sa iyo, magtiis ka! Wag ka tatakas” (No matter what happens, just stay with your employer).
The order seems to be a preview of how things might have been in Syria. VFF resident social worker Marichel Ecalante said Kaisha will most likely end up as a domestic helper under “extremely abusive situations” like being subjected to forced labor, sexual exploitation, and debt bondage.
Escalante explained that Kaisha’s decision to stay in the agent’s safe house despite the long delay in her placement might be the result of her fear toward the latter. “They (the recruits) also do not want to lose a sure employment opportunity,” she added. This is not surprising for Kaisha, who came from an impoverished and conflict-torn southern Philippine province of Maguindanao. Another factor considered is the shame of being tagged as a trafficking victim.
The double whammy of being poor and a perpetual battle-zone of the military, Islamic separatists, and private armies deprive Maguindanaonons of basic social services (like health and education services) and even livelihood means. Kaisha’s acquaintances in the community (some of them are minors too) had left the country in search of a better life.
Kaisha is already in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) II waiting for her flight when a plain-clothed airport operative approached and asked for her passport. “Nung nakita nya sa passport na 21 (years old) ako, nagtanong: ’21 ka na? Hindi nga?” (You are already 21? Really?), she recalled. “Takot ako sa recruiter. Akala ko makukulong ako” (I am afraid of the recruiter. I thought I would be jailed).
The official determined that her passport is baklas (fake). She was then brought to the airport clinic where a dental examination was conducted to reveal her real age. The official, whose name she cannot remember anymore, assured her that she won’t be jailed because she is the victim. Kaisha was saved by a member of the NAIA Anti-Trafficking Task Force, a group that operates under the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.
Government personnel may have saved Kaisha’s life in this case, but the 2009 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report noted that there are instances where “immigration and police officers are complicit in human trafficking.” In 2003, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed into law Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. This was hailed by many NGOs as a useful tool in curbing the menace. Meanwhile, the U.S government chastised the Philippines “for not fully complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” though “there are significant efforts to do so.” Humantrafficking.org estimates place the number of trafficking victims in the country at 400,000.
The Anti-Trafficking Act prohibits the reception and transportation of an individual “done under the pretext of domestic and overseas employment” for the “purpose of slavery, prostitution, exploitation, debt bondage and servitude.” Stiff penalties await the law violators: a fine of P 1-5 million and possible lifetime imprisonment. There have been very few convictions so far, though, since judicial proceedings in the country drags on for years.
To prevent human trafficking, Escalante stressed the importance of vigilance on the part of the government, side-by-side with NGOs. The VFF compound, for example, has a wide window overlooking the disembarkation area of the Manila South Harbor. Their volunteers are looking around for passengers who bear the typical characteristics of someone being trafficked: minors huddled in groups, looking lost, and unfamiliar with the nation’s capital.
Once they spot someone who fits this description, the volunteers alert nearby police officers and ship owners. “Usually, out-of-school youth sila. Hindi nila kilala ang kanilang mga employers. Normally, dapat alam nila yun” (They also don’t who their employers are which shouldn’t be the case), Escalante said.
VFF suggests a three-pronged approach to combat human trafficking. First, the state must police its own ranks to prevent and eliminate collusion between the traffickers and government employees. Second, the transport sector must do its share in being vigilant and must be an ally in the effort. Referred to as “the most crucial pivot point in trafficking,” the NGO says the transport phase is the last point of visibility for the victim and traffickers. Proper intervention must be done in this phase. Local officials in far-flung communities where illegal recruiters get their victims must also be included in the campaign.
After being rescued at the airport, Kaisha was turned over to the VFF shelter. Here, she’s with other victims of trafficking (mostly minors). They are provided with recreational activities and assigned house chores, just like in a normal home. Jut before the interview, Kaisha and six others were gyrating to the tune of Beyonce Knowles’ “Single Ladies.” They also undergo therapy sessions before they return to their families.
Kaisha, who hasn’t seen her parents since November 2008, will be ferried to Maguindanao this March 25 (2010). She said she’ll say sorry to her family for not being able to work overseas. It is not easy to readjust to the life the survivors used to have. Escalante said it is important for the local social welfare offices in the area to provide Kaisha and others like her the needed education and livelihood training so they can start better lives. She conceded though that given the situation in Maguindanao, this may not be possible.
Kaisha dreams of becoming a nurse someday so she can finally help her family financially. “Mangyari pa kaya yun? Sana lang” (Will it happen? I hope so), she said. The tinge of sad resignation to her plight is apparent in her words – and she’s certainly not the only one facing the same situation.