THE Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that made it to Tier 1 in the 2016 Trafficking-in-Persons Report issued by the United States Department of State. This week, we expect the US government to release its 2017 report. Are we facing a downgrade from Tier 1 to Tier 2?
Falling a notch lower will not come as a surprise to stakeholders familiar with the government’s anti-trafficking campaign.
The Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), which is tasked to determine policies and execute strategic action plans against all forms of human trafficking, appears to be in a state of hibernation. After an initial organizational meeting led by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, no follow-ups were made, and apparently there are internal hiccups that must be resolved prior to launching a more vigorous effort to fight human trafficking.
Whether or not the Philippines is downgraded from its present Tier 1 status to a Tier 2, the fight against human trafficking deserves greater support from the very top. Its best champion can be no less than President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
Why should the President get involved? For one, anti-trafficking is an advocacy that is close to his heart. Even prior to his announcement as a presidential candidate, Mayor Duterte had intimated to this writer his disdain for human trafficking. During a casual dinner in Davao City, the mayor said that he considered human trafficking to be on par with the narcotics trade as crimes that deserve the government’s all-out attention.
Though the President may not lose sleep over the results of the US 2017 TIP Report, as a former prosecutor, he will likely demand a comparison of the number of arrests, convictions and cases archived or dismissed for lack of evidence. Based on the 2016 US TIP Report, the Philippines convicted 42 traffickers, including five for online child sexual exploitation (OSEC) and two for forced labor trafficking.
During the previous administration, much credit should be given to former Vice President Jejomar Binay for steering the work of the IACAT in his capacity as chairman emeritus and presidential adviser on OFW affairs. As the NGO representative for OFWs in IACAT, I witnessed how engrossed the vice president was in making sure that IACAT hit its targets, with case reports always integrated into the council’s regular meetings.
He also provided the council with a local governments perspective, often drawing from his own experience as Makati City mayor in underscoring the arsenal of powers that every local official can use in the fight against human trafficking.
We need a similar high-level champion that would double as anti-trafficking czar in support of and to complement the work of the two co-chairs of IACAT. Justice Secretary Aguirre and Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, the council’s co-chairs, are quite visible in the media given the critical concerns that their respective departments are in charge of.
Secretary Taguiwalo is working non-stop in delivering social services to the families affected by the Maute Group’s siege of Marawi City. This is on top of the DSWD’s anti-poverty programs as well as relief operations every time a calamity strikes. The justice secretary is fighting several legal battles with high-profile corruption cases, the trial of Maute Group members, and a vigorous anti-drugs war.
Both secretaries need to empower the IACAT secretariat in implementing the council’s strategic plans. The IACAT’s executive director is prosecutor Darlene Parajito, one of the US State Department’s Trafficking-in-Persons awardees. She is highly competent having been the first prosecutor to obtain the first ever conviction for forced labor trafficking.
IACAT must also speak with one voice on cases involving human trafficking. I find it disturbing that the Department of Foreign Affairs wishes to extend legal assistance to a Filipino human trafficker who had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the sexual exploitation of eight of her victims in Sabah. Did the DFA also speak to her victims? What signal would such diplomatic action send to our counterparts in Malaysia who are quite aware of the preponderance of cases involving trafficking of Filipino women to Sabah?
The government must also act quickly to arrest the rise in the number of cases involving the online sexual exploitation of children, or OSEC. The youngest victim of online sexual exploitation of record is a two-month-old infant. It was the mother who brought her baby to to a “seller” of OSEC materials, not knowing that her potential client was a government agent.
According to the International Justice Mission through its Philippine office, the youngest OSEC survivor that it has rescued was also a baby less than a year old. Can you imagine the perversion that comes with online streaming of sexual abuse involving infants? Yet, there are syndicates that actually do this inside villages and even urban communities with the complicity of Filipino parents.
Indeed, there is much work to be done on the anti-trafficking front. Here’s hoping that President Duterte will infuse the bureaucracy with his fervent passion against all forms of human trafficking. The President may yet be the best anti-trafficking czar that this country will ever have.