IN the Philippines, where an estimated eight million Filipino migrant workers have either worked or are still working overseas, human trafficking looms as an ever-present threat, especially in some Middle Eastern countries whose laws and cultures do not recognize certain forms of human trafficking as a crime. Because of this, not a few overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who fall victim to trafficking are often punished as illegal immigrants instead of being helped.
Several studies have confirmed that one of the largest human trafficking problems in the Middle East is the trafficking of migrant workers. Many migrant workers, mainly from Asian countries like the Philippines, find themselves in a domestic servitude or forced labor situation, or working for very low wages. This tragic phenomenon is quite prevalent in the Gulf States.
One of the more common forms of trafficking that I encountered during my recent trip to the Middle East is the unrecorded transfer of Filipino women household services workers (HSWs) to different employers, and in extreme cases, to a different employer in another Gulf State. It is not unheard of for our HSWs to be trafficked across borders and left behind by their employers without any papers in a neighboring country, where they are oftentimes penalized or fined, or even imprisoned.
What exactly is human trafficking? Human trafficking is considered the modern-day equivalent of slavery. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the usual pattern of the crime is: 1) recruitment or abduction of people; 2) transited through regions or countries; 3) exploited in the destination countries. Simply put, trafficking is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by means of threat or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or exploitation. It is to be distinguished, however, from human smuggling.
Human smuggling, on the other hand, is the facilitation and transportation of a person/s in violation of one or more country laws in order to obtain financial gain for the smuggler. It does not necessarily mean that the persons transported are exploited; a concrete example is smuggling an individual to reunite him or her with his or her family. Human trafficking, on the other hand, specifically targets the person as the object of exploitation, and its purpose is to profit from taking undue advantage of such a person.
There are reports that traffickers have resorted to the internet, specifically social media, to lure innocent Filipinos into working abroad. Other traffickers would network with local syndicates in penetrating the rural and urban areas of the country. The United Nations, for instance, has tagged the Philippines as one of the major source countries where men, women and children are subjected to forced labor and sex-trafficking.
Because of the growing threat of human trafficking, the country has undertaken steps to prevent this illegal trade from flourishing. Taking its cue from the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Related Protocols, Congress enacted RA 9208, or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, which was later amended by RA 10364, or the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012.
To coordinate and monitor the implementation of anti-trafficking laws, the Inter-Agency Council against Trafficking (IACAT) was established in 2003. Since its creation, the IACAT has been at the forefront of the battle against trafficking in persons (TIP), with considerable success.
In 2016, the US Department of State accorded the country a Tier 1 ranking – the highest compliance level a government can achieve for its anti-trafficking measures. A Tier 1 ranking indicates that a government has acknowledged the existence of human trafficking, made efforts to address the problem, and complies with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The ranking is the result of the concerted efforts of several government agencies and partners, including the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), which has been a crucial actor in the rescue and repatriation of victims of human trafficking overseas.
At the mere suspicion of trafficking, OWWA’s welfare officers, together with officers from the DFA’s Assistance-to-Nationals (ATN) section, and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)’s labor attachés, band together to effect the rescue of trafficked OFWs.
If the only remedy is to bring the matter to court, victims will be provided legal assistance by our overseas posts. The Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in certain countries abroad serve as resource centers where workers are housed in shelters while negotiations are going on with their employers and the local authorities. Once all the documentation for the repatriation (return) of the OFW is completed, the worker is flown back to the country.
Upon arrival at the airport, the OFW will be assisted by the Repatriation and Assistance Division (RAD) of OWWA and debriefed (or interviewed) by the members of IACAT. The migrant worker will then be brought to OWWA’s Halfway House where they will be provided with temporary accommodation and meals for free. There, our male and female OFWs will be assessed and provided stress debriefing by social workers, if necessary.
OWWA will also pay for the transport of the workers to their respective homes in the city or provinces. But the benefits do not end there; with the expanded OWWA Reintegration Program, distressed workers can avail of the livelihood training programs and assistance right in their own regions through OWWA regional offices.
Following the marching orders of President Rodrigo R. Duterte to provide our migrant workers with the best possible programs, the budget of the reintegration program has been increased to accommodate more workers and more livelihood programs. This means more opportunities for OFWs victimized by trafficking to rebuild their lives.