One hundred seventy-seven Indonesians almost left the country as Filipinos, to join the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Had it not been for the vigilance and swift action of the Bureau of Immigration, the syndicate handling the cross-border operations would have succeeded at great risks to our own national security.
It is outrageous that while overseas Filipino workers and, yes, even ordinary passengers, find it difficult to obtain a reservation date via online booking, and submit the necessary requirements to obtain a passport, here is a syndicate that was able to produce 117 authentic Philippine passports to foreigners.
When I first read the news articles about this crime, several questions raced through my head. How long have these Indonesians been in the country and where were they staying? Such a big group must have entered in batches, and nobody except for the syndicate members, really know how large this group is, and how many have preceded them before their illicit plan was discovered.
How entrenched is the syndicate and in how many agencies are its tentacles? This is not a mom-and-pop operation. Again, based on news reports, the going rate for the syndicated travel from Indonesia to the Philippines and onward to Saudi Arabia ranges from $6,000 to $10,000 per non-Filipino pilgrim. The Indonesians and a handful of Malaysians availed themselves of this service because their country’s quota for Muslim pilgrims have been met while the Philippines still has a lot of slots available.
The Bureau of Immigration said the foreigners were dressed like Filipinos when they lined up for passport clearance. They were booked for Medina, Saudi Arabia onboard Philippine Airlines flight 8689. Immigration agents became suspicious when officers greeted the travelers in Filipino and no one responded. The Bureau of Immigration detained the 177 Indonesians and 8 Filipinos who were part of the entourage.
The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) is the primary agency in charge of pilgrimages to the Hajj. The Department of Foreign Affairs provides the passports, based on the certification issued by the NCMF. A source from within a law enforcement agency told this writer that it is impossible that the syndicate would be bold enough to move more than a hundred Indonesians all at one time, unless they have done this before. “It usually starts with one or two individuals before a syndicate would operate on a bigger scale,” the agent told me. This means that the syndicate may have been complacent in its “work” and “connections,” not realizing that, well, change is here.
My fear is that when the Indonesians are deported, that would be the end of the case, until the syndicate strikes again. We cannot and should not let that happen. This crime has all the elements of human trafficking, from the act of fraud and deception, to potential exploitation given the stolen identities, and exorbitant fees involved. I would hazard a guess that some, if not all, of these Indonesians are heavily indebted in their country, and that the syndicate involves a lending company charging usurious rates. And that brings us to the element of exploitation through debt bondage.
Then, consider the security implications. Indonesia has its own fair share of terrorist activity, even more so than the Philippines. Who are these pilgrims? What are their backgrounds? What if one or more of them have managed to slip in the country as part of underground cells to organize mayhem and terror? And what would happen if any of these pilgrims were actually meant to infiltrate Saudi Arabia while posing as Filipino pilgrims? Surely, if the reverse had been true, and Filipinos were caught in Indonesia with Indonesian passports, their thought process would have been just as dark and suspicious.
For our national peace of mind, I appeal to government authorities to take this crime seriously. Our passports have been sold. Internal processes meant to ensure the Filipino identity were bastardized. The culprits in and outside government must be unmasked and held accountable. Reforms must take place to ensure the integrity of our Philippine passport.
This is not just a mere violation of the Passport Act. No, this is the handiwork of an international human trafficking syndicate. To treat this case lightly would be an insult to all Filipinos.