Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, after narcotics. In Asia’s western Pacific, human trafficking in the Philippines is a considerable concern; it has one of the largest victim populations in the world with an estimated 784,000 people living as modern-day slaves.
The Philippines is currently ranked as a Tier 1 country by the US Department of State, meaning that it fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. This status recognizes the huge and ongoing progress made in the fight against human trafficking in the Philippines; however as the figures show, it remains a significant problem.
Demographics of Human Trafficking in the Philippines
Men, women, and children are exploited from rural communities, conflict and disaster zones, and impoverished urban areas. The most at-risk populations are Indigenous persons, internally displaced persons, women, and children.
The Philippines is one of the largest known sources of online sexual exploitation of children, and it is estimated that of the 50,000 Filipino children employed as domestic workers in the Philippines almost 5,000 are under 15 years old. In total, estimates say that between 60,000 and 100,000 Filipino children are impacted by labor trafficking or sex trafficking.
Native Filipinos are usually involved in the recruitment stage of human trafficking. Often, perpetrators are family members of trafficked individuals or corrupt state officials. Organized crime groups in the Philippines oversee the smuggling networks and subsequent trafficking. They link with the owners of nightclubs or karaoke bars in the destinations where the girls are deployed, most of whom tend to be nationals of the country of destination.
Many of the sex tourists in the Philippines come from wealthy, developed countries and are often convicted or charged sex offenders in their home countries. However, Filipino men also purchase commercial sex acts from trafficked children.
Types of Human Trafficking in the Philippines
According to the U.S. Department of State, the Philippines is a major source of both sex and labor trafficking. With one of the largest migrant populations in the world, male Filipino migrant workers are typically exploited in the fishing, shipping, construction, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors while females are exploited in domestic and hospitality roles. Children of both genders are subject to sex and labor trafficking, many of whom have been sold by family members. There is an emphasis on tight-knit family units in the Philippines, which can mean that children are unlikely to speak out when they are abused or exploited by someone in their family.
The labor code in the Philippines allows parents to decide if their children can work before they turn 15. This means that sometimes, kids are working starting at age 6. This lack of protection contributes to forced labor and indentured servitude for children who have no one to advocate for them.
The recruitment of child soldiers also remains a huge issue in the Philippines, in particular on the southern island of Mindanao where radical separatist groups operate. Armed, non-state groups such as the Maute Group, the Moro National Liberation Front, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters recruit child soldiers, while the Islamic State is reported to subject women and girls to sexual slavery.
Recruitment Methods of Human Trafficking in the Philippines
The most common human trafficking recruitment method is false promises of job placement. Traffickers prey on the economically disadvantaged, using debt-based coercion or the promise of work to lure their victims. Many migrants leave the Philippines voluntarily, only to be exploited sexually or financially in the destination country. Employers often confiscate all travel documents to prevent them from leaving.
In many cases, victims are recruited to work as “entertainers” but end up being forced to work as strippers, night-club hostesses, and prostitutes. In January 2021, traffickers fraudulently recruited Filipino domestic workers to work in the United Arab Emirates but instead forced them into domestic work in Damascus.
Online recruitment is another common tactic, particularly when it comes to online exploitation of children. One in every three internet users in the Philippines in 2020 was a child. That increased internet usage by minors increases their vulnerability to grooming and online exploitation. Social media in particular is an increasingly common venue for recruitment.
Human Trafficking Networks in the Philippines
Human trafficking victims in the Philippines are trafficked both domestically and internationally. Bribing immigration personnel, producing fake travel documents, and using student and intern exchange programs are some of the main methods of moving victims.
Traffickers use both air and sea routes to transport their victims across borders and evade detection. They capitalize on the lack of immigration personnel at smaller airports in the Philippines to smuggle people into the cities of Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur. These serve as major transit hubs for destination countries. According to the UN Global Program against Trafficking in Human Beings, top destinations include the USA, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Jordan, and Taiwan.
Due to its geographical proximity, Malaysia serves as both a destination and transit site for overseas transport. The “Southern Backdoor,” the popular route of leaving the Philippines via its southern islands, takes advantage of Malaysia’s unguarded sea borders. This passage is wrought with dangers including detainment, starvation, and drowning.
Despite the illegality of prostitution in the Philippines, many of the major tourist destinations are hotspots for the commercial sex trade, including the exploitation of minors. It is typically taxi drivers with knowledge of hidden locations who facilitate child sex trafficking in these urban, tourist areas.
Human Trafficking and COVID-19
Undeterred by the COVID-19 pandemic, traffickers in The Philippines have adapted to use the internet as a means of recruitment and abuse. The United States reports a 265% increase in unconfirmed reports of online child sexual abuse in the Philippines during the pandemic, according to the 2021 Trafficking in Person Report.
Traffickers sexually exploit children in live internet broadcasts, where their customers watch from abroad and wire payment internationally. These traffickers are very often parents or close relatives who force their children into online sexual exploitation. Most viewers of this child sexual abuse material are located in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and the UK.
The pandemic did result in a decrease in reports of sex trafficking in locations near offshore gaming operations due to the mass departure of Chinese nationals that these areas catered to. However, experts believe that the pandemic will only further increase socio-economic disparity, forcing more people into poverty and increasing the number of people vulnerable to trafficking.
The Filipino Government and Human Trafficking
The Filipino government has made huge progress in the fight against human trafficking since its initial Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of State. Amidst the pandemic, it has continued its efforts; prosecuting more traffickers, imprisoning the majority of convicted traffickers, and increasing the number staff assigned to anti-trafficking task forces. In aftercare, a specialized shelter in Manila was opened to serve more than 1,000 victims and it launched a platform for educating governments units and the public about trafficking and how to report cases.
Although there has been legislative progress, those changes are inconsistently implemented and practiced. Resources for law enforcement and victims remain inadequate, and labor crimes in particular need more attention. In many states where human trafficking occurs, officials involved in law, diplomacy, and immigration processes facilitate or are themselves complicit in trafficking. Some reports assert that corrupt officials carry out fake raids on commercial sex establishments to extort money from managers, clients, and victims and that embassy employees exploit their domestic workers in exchange for government protection.
Nonprofit Organizations Fighting Human Trafficking in the Philippines
The Filipino government is partnering with NGOs to identify the areas where better structures and increased funding are most needed. Organizations such as Renew Foundation and Made in Hope are empowering survivors of human trafficking in the Philippines through livelihood and skills training programs. Organizations like Together in Hope are providing anti-trafficking education to help prevent human trafficking.
Organizations like Destiny Rescue and The Exodus Road are fighting human trafficking through intervention, in which they partner with law enforcement to remove children being exploited in sex trafficking.
Although the battle against human trafficking seems never-ending, it is the tireless work of dedicated NGOS, in partnership with government and local law enforcement, that brings us a step closer to eliminating human trafficking in the Philippines.
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