PCI is dedicated to the fight against human trafficking both at home and abroad.  

Survivors of human trafficking participate at an ICT training class by the Visayan Forum Foundation in the Philippines. The country has some of the best anti-trafficking laws in the world, but there are still several challenges in the fight against trafficking. Photo by: Noelle Huskins / CC BY-SA

Survivors of human trafficking participate at an ICT training class by the Visayan Forum Foundation in the Philippines. The country has some of the best anti-trafficking laws in the world, but there are still several challenges in the fight against trafficking. Photo by: Noelle Huskins / CC BY-SA

By Cecilia Flores-Oebanda

The fight against human trafficking is not a straightforward process.

In the Philippines, a source country for trafficked persons, there are big wins, such as the passage of strong laws against trafficking in persons and last year’s 33 convicted traffickers. However, there are also regular setbacks. For example, there is a devastating trend of children being made to perform sexual acts streamed live to customers around the world, a result of traffickers taking advantage of communities’ access to high-speed Internet. The anti-trafficking movement is innovative, but so are the traffickers.

For the past four years, the Philippines has been assessed as a Tier 2 Country on the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report, which means that the Philippine government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but it is making significant efforts to do so.

One weapon on our side is that anti-trafficking-in-persons laws in the Philippines are among the best in the world.

The Philippines’ Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 criminalized trafficking within or across national borders and rendered the consent of victims irrelevant if deception or coercion is used. It also established the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking to coordinate and monitor anti-trafficking activities.

The Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012 further strengthened the law by establishing stronger penalties for violators and expanding provisions to protect victims, removing the identity protection clause for perpetrators, granting law enforcement officers and service providers immunity from suit when performing official functions, and prohibiting the use of a complainant’s past sexual behavior or predisposition in proving their consent in trials. The last point is valuable because many victims fear having their sexual history publicly scrutinized, which may deter them from pursuing charges.

Through the efforts of IACAT, we now have a comprehensive National Strategic Action Plan Against Trafficking in Persons for 2012-2016, which prioritizes four key results areas: advocacy and prevention; protection, recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration; prosecution and law enforcement; and partnership and networking.

The U.S. TIP report released in June commends IACAT’s robust prevention programs. It is strategic for the government and civil society to invest in anti-trafficking awareness-raising and training sessions for public officials, religious, business and community leaders, and the youth. The pre-employment seminars for thousands of outbound Filipino overseas workers conducted by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency and the targeted counseling programs for at-risk groups in trafficking hotspots held by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas are essential in empowering individuals against the false promises of traffickers.

Indeed, prevention is our best defense because it keeps people safe from abuse and saves us the cost and effort of rescuing, rehabilitating and reintegrating victims, and prosecuting criminals. We should now take steps to monitor and evaluate these preventive measures to test their effectiveness.

The report also identified several challenges in the fight against trafficking that we at Visayan Forum are also encountering and taking steps to address.

Men and boys

One major challenge is dealing with men and boys who are potential victims of human trafficking. They have always been vulnerable, especially in the agriculture and deep-sea fishing industries, where fishermen are made to dive deep into the ocean only with the aid of breathing tubes attached to a compressor. The increasing attention on their plight is strongly warranted and overdue.

For the past few years, Visayan Forum’s team in Negros Oriental has assisted in the rescue and case management of potentially trafficked sugarcane farmers in the Philippines and worked with the government to implement livelihood programs for abused fishermen and to monitor deep-sea fishing operations. There is a lot more that needs to be done to address the needs of this at-risk demographic — from training law enforcement officers to recognize potential trafficking situations involving men and boys to building shelters and improving protective services that cater to male victims.

Today, many of them are prematurely discharged back into their communities, affecting their ability to recover and seek justice. This is also one space where donors should be more engaged.

Access to justice

Another pillar in the fight against trafficking that needs to be improved is victims’ access to justice. Traffickers need to know that they will be punished. Otherwise, trafficking will always be lucrative.

While there is a steady increase in the number of trafficking convictions, we also need to examine the ratio of the number of cases filed to the number of convictions. With more than 300 cases filed during the TIP reporting period, it seems that prosecution efforts have improved but trials remain lengthy, and the number of convictions disproportionately low, which is a deterrent for most victims.

Traffickers also have the resources to intimidate those who challenge them. Some of the survivors under our care are being threatened against filing charges. Our organization, especially our social workers, is regularly exposed to threats and retaliatory suits. The government’s witness protection program needs to assure victims and their families of their safety and financial survival. It has to be more accessible to victims and the application process less restrictive. Social workers also need more support.

Corrupt officials who use their power to victimize people undermine the good work done by honest public servants. The TIP mentions reports of officials accepting bribes from establishments that engage in trafficking, facilitating illegal departures for overseas workers and urging victims to downgrade trafficking charges. There are also serious allegations that personnel in Philippine diplomatic posts in the Middle East revictimized distressed Filipino overseas workers, pocketed their wages and forced them into transactional sex or domestic servitude in exchange for repatriation. Administrative charges have been filed but we need these individuals to be made criminally accountable.

Data collection and management

Finally, as Visayan Forum has learned in our two decades of anti-trafficking work, data management is an often neglected but very integral tool in the fight against trafficking. It took us years to standardize our data collection processes and consolidate our information. But once we started to invest in a strong data management system, it became easier for us to identify hotspots and emerging trends, such as spikes in potential trafficking cases in post-disaster areas or the vulnerability of indigenous people to illegal recruitment.

As part of its legal mandate, IACAT is in the process of putting together a comprehensive database of trafficking cases in the Philippines. Information from victims, including repatriated Filipinos, will help us study the recruitment and placement strategies of traffickers. Once this data is available, it also becomes easier to blacklist abusive employers and recruitment agencies, monitor the services provided to OFWs in shelters abroad, and provide Filipinos with more targeted protective information.

It does seem that the number of partnerships being formed against human trafficking — among government agencies, the private sector, civil society organizations, faith-based groups, community watch groups and academic institutions — is unprecedented in our nation’s history. For that, we are thankful. The challenge now is to prioritize strategic and high-impact interventions that bring about real social change. This can only be done if we protect at-risk groups, deter traffickers and empower victims. With cautious optimism, we celebrate how far we’ve come in the fight against trafficking, but we also brace ourselves for the long road ahead.

This article was first seen on DEVEX on August 4, 2014.