HumanTrafficking.org recently interviewed Ms. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, Founder and Director of the Visayan Forum Foundation (VFI). Ms. Flores-Oebanda provided her thoughts on human trafficking in the Philippines. Her thoughtful ideas are useful in numerous contexts.
How did you become personally involved in the effort to combat human trafficking in the Philippines?
I became personally involved when a case of trafficked child domestic worker was reported to Visayan Forum Foundation in 2000. She came from a poor rural community in Central Philippines. The trafficker promised her and her family Php2,000 (US$40) monthly salary. An advance payment of Php500 (US$5) was given to her mother. She ended up paying double the amount including the finder’s fee and transportation which put her in a bonded situation for almost a year. She ended up serving 6 different families without pay. She was starved, not allowed to go out of the employer’s house. She was bitten by a child of her employer and was even raped by her male employer.
What do you believe are the root causes of human trafficking in the Philippines?
Victims are pushed by poverty, unemployment, lack of educational alternatives, peer influence, social expectations and armed conflict, and the mere inability of young people to continue their studies. Many believe in making family sacrifices.
In Philippines, the phenomenon of trafficking in women and children has two faces: serving both the overseas job markets as well as the local market. A network of headhunters who scouts for recruits in poor community earns as much as $10 to $20 per head, putting recruits in a position of indebtedness to recruiters who harbor them. Before reaching Manila and other exit airports, recruiters have to identify, screen, and transport potential victims from poor provinces. Traffickers clandestinely organize their transport operations through different ports and land routes across the country. As it happens inside the country is part and parcel of the international dynamics of trafficking, and solutions must be combined addressing these two dimensions.
What do you believe are some solutions to human trafficking in the Philippines?
Government has to create policies and services responsive to the problem of trafficking inside and outside the country. This problem should not be dealt as merely a migration issue but looking it as an issue of human rights violation, therefore justice must be served. Government should work on a strategy where the anti-trafficking law will be effectively implemented from the national to local levels.
The Department of Labor should strictly monitor the compliance of recruitment agencies and crack down the illegal recruiters. Services should be in place especially in transit areas like bus terminals, seaports and airports.
Intensify preventive programs through education, public awareness-raising, creation of community anti-trafficking watch groups, and provide opportunity to the youth and their families through economic sustainability programs, like Microsoft’s project that provide IT training to survivors and vulnerable groups.
What is unique about the root causes and solutions to human trafficking in the Philippines?
The Philippines is considered as among the leading sources of migrant workers all over the world. As of December 2003, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration reported some 7.76 million Filipinos are working abroad. It is part of the Government Philippine Medium Term Development Plan. This policy has another side of coin: thousands of Filipinos fall into crack of trafficking for exploitative situations.
Trafficking also still remains rampant within borders. Inside the Philippines, there is trafficking from rural to urban metropolitan areas. Even overseas recruitment relies on intricate processes that start from far-flung communities.
What are your thoughts on the Philippine government's efforts to combat human trafficking?
The Philippines has made notable progress in the campaign against trafficking in persons, being one of the first countries in Asia to pass a definitive law against trafficking, the Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003. The law imposes stiff penalties for traffickers and mandates the provision of direct services to trafficking victims.
The challenge for the government is on how to make this law effective and how to fast track the resolutions of cases filed in court. Second is how to address the root causes of the problem.
What are Visayan Forum Foundation's activities in the areas of prevention, protection, and prosecution?
Aware of the archipelagic nature of the Philippines and that internal trafficking is rampant in many of these transit points, Visayan Forum combats trafficking it transit points, such as shipping ports and airports strategically located across the country. This is a crucial stage when traffickers become highly visible, along with their recruited victims. Within these ports, the VF operates unique facilities called halfway houses.
Inside these halfway houses, a team of multi-disciplinary staff provide integrative services to protect and heal victims. Such services includes temporary shelter, counseling, legal assistance, skills training, and referral for aftercare services.
Visayan Forum offers temporary shelter, healing and repatriation services to women and children. These port halfway houses are also the nerve centers for information and advocacy inside the ports. Integral to operating the halfway house is to organize a well-entrenched Anti-Trafficking Task Force at the Ports geared to enforce laws, detect traffickers, and protect possible victims as they are seen aboard vessels and buses. They are composed by Port Police, the Philippine Coast Guard, Maritime and Shipping Companies. Managers and key personnel of shipping companies schedule regular orientations and awareness sessions about trafficking on their crew. They also help distribute informational materials, through posters and desks assistance. They are also developing television “infomercials” to warn passengers about trafficking. The network has adopted its own implementation guidelines and referral procedures. A strong sense of ownership and coordination is key to making the effort work, and sustaining it well into the future.
VF is expanding its program in curbing international trafficking by setting up another halfway house at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, in partnership with the Manila International Airport Authority.
VF offers integrative services to trafficking victims that includes shelter, personality development seminars, counseling, processing activities, and other psychosocial interventions facilitated by registered Social Workers and Psychologist. Legal assistance is likewise provided to victims who decided to file charges against their perpetrators. In-house skills training, life skills and IT training were also provided to the victims to prepare them for alternative and sustainable work after their case was over and once they were reintegrated with their families and communities. Education assistance is also provided to those who wants to pursue their schooling by tapping educational institutions both formal and non-formal type of education.
Visayan Forum collaborates with multi-sectoral agencies in order to establish and strengthen mechanisms to provide timely, relevant, and rights-based interventions in key trafficking hotspots such as transit areas in ports. In Manila, Davao, Batangas and Matnog where VF runs halfway houses, Anti-Trafficking Taskforces have been organized. These task forces are composed of the Philippine Ports Authority, law enforcement groups, shipping crews, security guards, port personnel and other members of the port community. The taskforces monitor and facilitate the conduct of rescue and interceptions of potential and actual trafficking cases in these areas. These task forces are instrumental in gathering evidences and prosecuting trafficking offenders.
VF recently partnered with Microsoft to provide IT skills training to current and potential victims of trafficking and help them find better access to employment opportunities. Called the Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of People or step-UP Project, this is facilitated in three of Visayan Forum’s centers in Manila, Batangas City and Davao City. The training is also coursed through the Community Technology Learning Centers (CTLCs) run by 10 other local NGO partners nationwide.
What are the main obstacles to your efforts in combating human trafficking in the Philippines?
A main culprit is the slow legal process. Many victims do not feel safe to seek justice against their perpetrators because many of them fear from threatened retaliation. Traffickers have the machinery to intimidate victims in and out of courts. It is very difficult to attract victims’ participation in testifying against traffickers, who can trace their whereabouts and even force their parents to retrieve their children from the custody of social workers. They also fear that their economically superior can back at their families in the provinces.
Visayan Forum Foundation still does not have a secured safe house that can serve as a one-stop-shop to services as a center for trafficking with comprehensive package services to serve women and children requiring long-term healing services while pursuing legal cases against their traffickers.
Can you share some of your lessons learned in combating human trafficking?
Trafficking against persons is an evil, a crime, a threat to society that preys on its most vulnerable members. Usually, operators have extensive underground connections and with corrupt public officials. Traffickers are motivated by easy profits, high demand for dirty and dangerous jobs, protection from network and low probability of conviction. It is a crime that does not care about borders; it does not care about age; it does not care about sex. No single country, no single government agency, can tackle heads on against trafficking.
VF’s network of halfway houses is also sustained through the cooperation of Task Force Anti-Trafficking units involving law enforcers, shipping personnel and port vendors and stevedores. VF deploys a team of trainers and resource persons to continually upgrade the capability of these partners who are continually fielded in different assignments. Trainings include basic orientations about the law, handling of evidentiary documents, rights-based principles in interviewing victims, as well as employing best practices in prosecution.
The Visayan Forum has also embarked on developing a set of alternatives to prepare victims for empowerment. In 2006, it embarked on a joint project with Microsoft entitled “Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of People through Unlimited Potential” or step-UP Project. It has trained trafficking survivors to teach victims housed at the center about basic information technology to prepare for an eventual reintegration to society. VF has also partnered with 12 other NGOs nationwide to run community technology learning centers (CTLCs) in source areas.
Generally, prevention is key to fight trafficking. This can be done by mobilizing local partners, religious groups and other NGOs to help build community-based reporting mechanisms against trafficking. This includes joint planning with local government units to support after-care services such as shelter, return-to-school and livelihood opportunities for repatriated victims of trafficking.
Continue to mobilize multisectoral efforts in the island of Visayas and Mindanao, especially on the nexus of trafficking and migration. Localizing messages is an important step to make people aware that trafficking exists as part of the cultural realities of migration. User-friendly means such as posters, radio programs, comics and the like will make people know that they must not be taken advantage of. These shall warn people of the dangers of trafficking and there is a way to resist. At the policy level, there is a need to set up dialogues to review existing policies and programs of national and international institutions affecting both supply and demand side of trafficking.
Can you share a personal or Visayan Forum Foundation experience that demonstrates the problem of human trafficking in the Philippines? Or an experience that demonstrates a solution to human trafficking in the Philippines?
Please click here for a copy of a recent case facilitated by Visayan Forum which was published in a major newspaper in the Philippines.
We are often asked by ordinary citizens all over the world who use our website what they can do to help combat trafficking in their countries. What would you recommend that ordinary citizens can do to prevent human trafficking?
Ordinary citizens can help in advocacy and information-dissemination. They can mobilize local communities to prevent trafficking by sharing information, lobbying for the passage of local laws and adoption of programs that promote safe migration and prevent illegal recruitment. They can also help potential victims by reporting to proper authorities and referring them to concerned agencies.
Students and professionals can volunteer in organizations that work against trafficking.
Concretely, they could help contribute materially or financially to support projects that directly provide services to victims and survivors of trafficking.
Visayan Forum needs urgent support to provide victims and survivors an opportunity to reclaim their lives by providing comprehensive services to victims and survivors of trafficking. Immediately, we need all the help for the construction of a safe house for victims. This hopes to complement the strengths and address limitations of existing port halfway houses of the Philippine Ports Authority which are currently being managed by the Visayan Forum.
The safe house serves as one-stop-shop to services as a center for trafficking with comprehensive package services to serve women and children requiring long-term healing services while pursuing legal cases against their traffickers.
This hopes to isolate the victims from traffickers who attempt to trace and access them during investigation and prosecution. It also aims to create a secure control environment during the investigation of law enforcer and lawyers against possible corruption that usually full short of evidence resulted the weakening of the case and the failure of filing of cases.
About Cecilia Flores-Oebanda
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda was a recipient of the Anti-Slavery Award in 2005. She was recently recognized as one of the Modern-Day Abolitionists during the bicentenary celebration of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in the United Kingdom. She is presently the Convener of the Multi-Sectoral Network Against Trafficking in Persons, a national alliance of civil society, government and private groups that provides immediate response mechanisms in the prevention of trafficking, prosecution of offenders, and protection, rescue, recovery and reintegration of trafficked persons. She is also the Philippine and Southeast Asia Coordinator for the Global March Against Child Labor and the current Chairperson of Child Workers in Asia.