By JP SORIANO and the GMA News Special Assignments Team
Produced for the web by MARISSE PANALIGAN
February 7, 2019
Clad in a black veil that showed only her eyes, Fatima (not her real name) cries as she tells her story. She had only dreamed of helping her family in Cotabato escape poverty when she accepted an offer by a recruiter to work as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia.
The salary? P30,000 per month. It may not seem like a lot of money, but it is a bonanza for many poor families in the Philippines.
“They asked if I wanted to go abroad. Everything would be free,” she says, recalling the conversation with the recruiter, who even went to her home and met her parents.
At only 16 years old, Fatima is not old enough to vote or drink alcohol, and certainly not old enough to work overseas. According to the Household Service Policy of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the minimum age to be allowed to work abroad as a household worker is 23. This means that Fatima is underage by seven years, too young to be considered emotionally or mentally mature to be fit for the job.
Fatima made it all the way to Ninoy Aquino International Airport, carrying a passport that contained her picture, but not her real name and certainly not her real age. But the Bureau of Immigration discovered that Fatima, along with other girls, were still minors, so they were offloaded from their flights.
Hers is a textbook case of human trafficking, which is defined in the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring, or receipt of persons with or without the victim’s consent or knowledge, within or across national borders by means of threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of position, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the person...”
While authorities investigate her case, Fatima remains in the care of Voice of the Free, a non-profit organization that provides support for victims of trafficking. Fatima is one of at least 150 victims rescued by the group last year.
Illegal recruiters have developed a sophisticated process to be able to traffic minors from the Philippines.
They would first spot their potential victims, usually underaged girls, luring them with promises of a job abroad. When they say yes, the victims would be brought to a safehouse where they would be trained to act older than they really are.
Fatima was at a safehouse with other girls her age. She says they experienced maltreatment and were forced into labor.
While the girls are at the safehouse, the recruiters would work on getting them documents to allow them to fake their ages.
“They sometimes use a birth certificate of an older sibling, so they would appear to be older. Others would use birth certificates in their name, but with a fake age, like majority of those in the shelter. Some of them are only 13, but their passport would say 23, 24,” says Sherryl Loseno, the operations manager of Voice of the Free.
The recruiters could secure fake birth certificates by applying for a new or late registration of birth for the girls. Lisa Grace Bersales, a national statistician from the Philippine Statistics Authority, says the information on the birth certificates they issue are based on the information given by the applicant. Last year, 118 cases of issued birth certificates with the wrong birthday were reported to the PSA.
Once they have the birth certificates in hand, the recruiters could then proceed to apply for passports with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“In some cases, the forgery is advanced, so it is harder to detect,” DFA Assistant Secretary Elmer Cato says. “But of course, aside from this we could also check based on the appearance of the passport applicant, and our personnel also conduct interviews.”
After securing their passports, it is on to the documents necessary to allow the girls to work abroad, such as the Overseas Employment Certificate from the POEA.
“Because our processing is online, they are not required to appear personally, they can get their OEC through the agency,” POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia says.
The last line of defense for the government is the Bureau of Immigration, which uses a “triangulation process” to identify possible victims of human trafficking. Spokesperson Dana Krizia Sandoval says BI personnel are trained well to spot these cases.
“The immigration officer examines the documents that a passenger shows, their statements, what they say they will do abroad. They look at the demeanor, how they are acting,” Sandoval says.
In 2018, the bureau offloaded some 28,000 people suspected to be victims of trafficking.
This was how the BI discovered Fatima and her companions, allowing her to be rescued.
Despite efforts by authorities, other women, even those older than Fatima, have not been as lucky in avoiding the trap.
According to GMA News Research, there were more 500 reported cases of human trafficking in the Middle East in from January to June 2017.
This was also the case for nine Filipinas, who were lured with jobs abroad via social media.
The women were promised work in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, traveling there on tourist visas.
Upon arrival, however, they were told that no such jobs exist. They had a choice: they could go to work in Baghdad in Iraq, or pay as much as $3,000 to go home.
This scheme is called “third country hiring.” Victims are promised work in one place, only to be sent to another country with a deployment ban where they will be forced to work as domestic helpers.
“When they get there, they would be told there is no work for them in Dubai, so they are forced to choose whether to work in Syria, or work in Iraq,” Cato says.
The women were detained on their way to Baghdad for entering the country without a visa. Securing one would have been impossible anyway because the Philippines has a total deployment ban in Iraq.
“Those nine did not have visas, so they entered Iraq illegally,” Cato says. “In the case of these nine we were able to recover them.”
There is still a deployment ban on Filipino workers for Iraq, Syria, and Libya, but illegal recruiters have taken advantage of the situation. The POEA says it is prosecuting and blacklisting recruiters who try to skirt deployment bans in some countries in the Middle East. The agency has an anti-illegal recruitment unit that works in coordination with different agencies in the Philippines and abroad.
The DFA, for its part, urges Filipinos to be vigilant when receiving job offers online.
Combating trafficking, Cato admits, is no easy task.
“We need the whole government, especially the concerned agencies, to be part of this effort to stop the exploitation of our countrymen,” Cato said.
Fatima, meanwhile, remains under the care of Voice of the Free. She could not be returned to her parents while a probe is ongoing about her case.
But with traffickers continuing find new ways to try to exploit the system, it seems inevitable that there will be another Fatima in the future, falling prey to promises of a better life abroad.