Freedom-fighter Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, Founding President and Executive Director of the Visayan Forum Foundation (VF), commends the significant progress of the Philippine government in combatting human trafficking that led to the removal of the country from the United States Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Watch List.
“Within one year, the Philippines succeeded in convicting 25 cases, almost twice the number of traffickers as compared to the past seven years” said Oebanda. “This is proof that with serious political will, through the allocation of budget and personnel, and vigorous partnership with NGOS to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims, the government can win the war against trafficking within our lifetime.”
The US Department of State, in its recently-released Trafficking in Persons report, upgraded the Philippines from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2. For the past two years, the Philippines was relegated to Watch List. Another Watch List rating would mean the withdrawal of at least $500 million dollar worth of non-humanitarian aid from the United States government.
The US TIP report concluded that the Philippines has demonstrated significant progress in combatting human trafficking citing the increase in the number of successful prosecution and the enactment of numerous measures and policies to improve institutional responses as evidence.
Heroes Against Trafficking
Oebanda, honoured in the 2008 US State Department TIP Report as a modern-day hero against trafficking, lauded the leadership of government members of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, which includes the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Deparment of Justice (DOJ), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
“In the past year, the War Against Trafficking witnessed the rise of many heroes,” added Oebanda. “I personally congratulate our dear sister-in-arms, Atty. Darlene Pajarito of the Department of Justice in Zamboanga City, for being recognized by the 2011 TIP report as a hero against trafficking.”
Atty. Pajarito is honoured in the 2011 TIP Report for her success in prosecuting trafficking offenders in Zamboanga and for her role in strengthening the Anti-Trafficking Task Force. Pajarito joins Oebanda as two Filipinas cited for their contribution in combatting human trafficking.
“She made justice a reality to many victims by being their fighting voice in the local courts. With the help of NGOs, she built the trust of victims to endure the lengthy legal process and shielded them from possible retaliations from traffickers,” said the internationally recognized human rights advocate.
“Like other unsung heroes who risk their lives and careers, every Filipino should continue to be driven by the vision of a world free from slavery. Everyone can help combat the root causes of trafficking by ending the demand for cheap labor and sex and by providing options for women and girls so that risky migration is not their only choice,” Oebanda stressed.
Oebanda also cited the important role of boxing icon and Saranggani Congressman Manny Pacquiao in supporting the legislative process that led to the allocation of budget for the government’s anti-trafficking programs and the filing of proposals to amend the country’s anti-trafficking law.
Cautious yet Optimistic
Oebanda, however, cautioned Philippine authorities from sitting on their laurels.
“We hope that the removal of watch list status will not lull us into a false sense of complacency. Beyond capitalizing on the 25 new convictions, the Philippine government should continue to deliver and upscale its results in a more targetted and systematic manner,” said Oebanda. “Our recent rescue operations in Zamboanga, Tawi-tawi, and Cebu prove that trafficking syndicates are relentless and creative in forcing our people into slavery. We should keep up the pressure.”
Reports and information from the Port and Airport Halfway House programs and the various anti-trafficking task forces established with assistance from the Visayan Forum pointed to the continued operation of recruitment agencies who evade government regulatory mechanisms by using tourist-worker schemes and fraudulent passports. The Visayan Forum noted an increase in the recruitment of under-aged recruits to work as domestic workers in Malaysia, Singapore, Hongkong, and countries from the Middle East. There is also a spike in the number of cases sheltered by Visayan Forum of very young children sold and forced by their parents to work in internet cafes with known cybersex operations.
While Oebanda sees value in the concrete recommedations stated in the US report, she said that the government should address the remaining challenges such as the need to sharpen the provisions of the anti-trafficking law in account of changing modus of traffickers who take advantage of the confidentiality clause; expedite adjudication of corruption and collusion practices; increase convictions of trafficking for forced labor, especially on the abuse of domestic workers; and expand the role of private and transport groups in making safe migration a real choice of all Filipinos.
“We remain optimistic yet cautious. We call on President Aquino to follow-through with these recent successes by certifying the amendments to the Anti-Trafficking Law and the Batas Kasambahay as priority legislative measures of the Aquino Administration,” Oebanda concluded.
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