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Why the Philippines is still in US trafficking Tier 2 Watch List (for 2 years in a row)!

One day (actual) anti-trafficking experiences (of two advocates) with authorities -- show where things can be improved.

November 4, 2010 - One day anti-trafficking experiences (of two advocates) with authorities -- show where things can be improved.

One advocate, an ordinary housewife in South Manila, who, suspecting a large-scale illegal recruitment in her neighborhood, reported the incident to a Manila-based anti-trafficking organization, only to be scolded later by the local police for not communicating the incident directly to them.

And the other, the focal person of the Manila-based anti-trafficking organization, who, after receiving the report from the housewife, coordinated the matter with the national emergency hotline, and later when she made the customary follow up, got told by the hotline’s operator that no such report has been received and immediately hung up.

Anti-trafficking eyes and ears in the community

One afternoon, Mrs. Reyes (not her real name) saw a group of heavily guarded (and disoriented-looking) women in their subdivision. Mrs. Reyes, who had reported a trafficking incident in the past, believed that these women were probably victims of human trafficking.

The following day, she did some surveillance herself! She saw five women come out and go from house to house, asking for food. Mrs. Reyes followed them and, when they were already out of sight of the recruiter’s housekeeper, she approached the five and invited them to her house.

If it’s too good to be true

The five women related that they left farming activities in Mindanao in September 2010 hopeful of promised high paying domestic jobs in the Middle East and a good life for them and their families. However, they found themselves in a South Manila house, cramped with 30 other women, mostly Muslim, from Mindanao, similarly wondering what have become of those promises.

The women were told that their working visas were already in Manila, even though they have not submitted documents or undergone medical examinations. They had borrowed money to pay for their transportation expenses.

These women stayed in the recruiter’s house. Their passports had been confiscated; they were told that they were endorsed to prospective recruitment agencies for possible deployment abroad. After a month without any development, they no longer believed the recruiter.

Everyday, these women had only one pandesal for breakfast and nothing for lunch and dinner. That was why they ventured out to ask food from neighbors, and met Mrs. Reyes in the process.

One of the recruits told the recruiter that she was pregnant, asked to be released, reimbursed of her transportation expenses, and for her passport. The recruiter gave her Cytotec instead, and asked P31, 000 in exchange for her freedom.

Not quick, run-around, hanging up response system

Immediately after receiving the report from Mrs. Reyes, Ms. Arcadia (not her real name) of the Manila-based anti-trafficking institution relayed the information to the emergency hotline. Operator 1 documented the report and promised to call Mrs. Reyes for a conference with the local police in the area. After half an hour, Mrs. Reyes called Ms. Arcadia to ask what she and the women are supposed to do next as she was not told (during the conference) what the local police plans would be.

Ms. Arcadia called up the hotline, introduced herself as the one who reported an anti-trafficking case earlier but Operator 2 (without checking the logs) said that no such report was received by the system and hang up.

Ms. Arcadia called again, and when the same person answered the call, she said, “This is not a prank call, why did you hang up?”. “Eh wala nga kaming nareceive na call na ganyan” (I told you no such call or report was recorded in the system), insisted Operator 2. Ms. Arcadia requested to talk to Operator 1 and asked to check their logs properly. After a minute or so, Operator 2 came back on line and said “Ay meron pala” (I saw the report now), and routed the call to Operator 1.

Ms. Arcadia told Operator 1 about the “hang up and no such call was recorded” conversation she had with Operator 2.  Operator 1 explained that the call must have been cut (not hang up) as their lines were experiencing some technical problems. Would you believe that?

Operator 2 informed Ms. Arcadia that a certain PO1 of the local police station promised to refer the matter to the local women and children’s protection desk officer for appropriate action. The police missed telling Mrs. Reyes this important information in the earlier conference!

These are what you get for reporting a trafficking case -- No thank yous and a scolding

Some six hours after the initial report, three local police officers (including the women and children protection officer) went to the house of Mrs. Reyes and interviewed the women. Instead of getting appreciation for her efforts, Mrs. Reyes received a scolding -- for not reporting the incident to the local police directly. One of the police officers, who happen to know Mrs. Reyes and her family, insisted that Mrs. Reyes knows where she’s detailed and should have contacted her first.

Worse, instead of proceeding to survey the area where the other recruits are housed, rescue them and catch the recruiter, the police officers advised the victims to file a case. They insisted that since Mrs. Reyes was the one who reported the case, she will be included as a witness. They were also told that “pati ikaw Mrs. Reyes ay pwedeng buweltahan ng recruiter” (even you Mrs. Reyes could be the target of recruiter’s reprisal). The women were warned that if they filed a case and decided later to withdraw, they would have to pay.

The victims, fearing reprisal, the risks of involving Mrs. Reyes and the prospect of paying filing and withdrawal fees, decided not to pursue the case (as of this writing). 

Where do these lead us?

As long as we have anti-trafficking eyes and ears selflessly doing their share, even little things – reporting to authorities and institutions, sharing food and shelter, contributing for transportation of victims, accompanying victims to meetings with concerned government agencies – with all the risks, more would-be victims could avoid being illegally recruited, trafficked and exploited.

But if some law enforcement offices feel slighted and insulted for not being contacted directly and proceed to blame, warn and “threaten” our trafficking eyes and ears and the victims, of the dangers of recruiters’ reprisals and the consequences of filing or withdrawing cases, who in their right minds would bother to report in the first place? If police avoid getting involved in trafficking investigations, what is the alternative?

It helps that we have emergency hotlines that allow conferences and coordination among anti-trafficking agencies and institutions, but if indifference or “technical glitches” – hanging up, no such calls on record, absence of a monitoring mechanism – result in treating legitimate (anti-human trafficking) calls as prankish, why bother with the hotline?

Do the police have a manual of operations for handling trafficking cases? Are they disseminated and explained to frontliners?

Are police so overwhelmed with other crime incidents that they hope trafficking victims would just go away with their problems? Or are they concerned about counter-cases against them by recruiters?

These actual incidents happened in one day. How many like this happen everyday? Hundreds of frustrated anti-trafficking ears and eyes deciding not to report prospective trafficking will consign thousands of women, men and children to otherwise preventable trafficking.

If we cannot fix these “little glitches”, how do you expect to fix the inevitable – downgrading to TIER 3?

Disclaimer: Ms. Arcadia, the writer, narrated the story as told to her by Mrs. Reyes.

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