Human smugglers, government in cat-and-mouse game as Pinoys still find golden pot abroad - The Libyan Report

Human smugglers, government in cat-and-mouse game as Pinoys still find golden pot abroad

By Recto Mercene & Samuel Raphael Medenilla

IN June, the Americans told the story of Angelo, a Filipino. To pursue a professional career in boxing after finishing high school, Angelo flew to Sydney on a promise he could make more than $150 per round in the ring in Australia, according to the United States Department of State “Trafficking in Persons” report.

“However, once they arrived, the trafficker forced the boxers to hand over their passports. The trafficker then forced the boxers to sleep in his garage and to box during the day and clean up after the trafficker’s family in the evening,” the TIP report said. “Angelo was rarely paid and, when he was, travel and living expenses were deducted so he ended up with very little. He could not send any money home to care for his two-year-old son.”

Angelo is one of many Filipinos who were able to slip into a tightening system against human smuggling that, according to Dana Krizia M. Sandoval, spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration (BI), has been working so far in favor of the government.

Sandoval said there has been a high rate of apprehensions for victims of human smuggling because of the “intensified campaign” by the BI. She said the BI’s not-so-secret weapon is its Travel Control and Enforcement Unit (TCEU).

Second layer

THE TCEU is the second layer of security at the international airports. Its personnel conduct a secondary inspection of travelers they suspect to be victims of human trafficking.

“To detect cases of human trafficking or illegal recruitment, the first immigration counter or booth would subject the passenger’s document to an initial examination,” Sandoval explained. “When a passenger falls under the category of illegally trafficked person, that person’s passport is not stamped.”

She said the traveler is referred to the TCEU where its members will subject the documents to a fine-tooth comb, including a bit of personal interview or “profiling.”

“The TCEU acts as auditors, to examine the performance activities of BI officials and agents to gauge their performance and to probably discourage any of them from engaging in any illicit activities,” she said.

Sandoval explained that passengers who are prevented from leaving because of questionable travel documents are eventually referred to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).

Currently, TCEU personnel have been deployed at the passenger terminals 1, 2 and 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) in Metro Manila.

TCEU outfits were also established in airports in Clark, Cebu, Iloilo, Kalibo, Aklan, and Davao, according to Sandoval. She added that Zamboanga also belongs to this list “because it has a major seaport there.”

Making headway

SANDOVAL credits her boss for the success of the system. She said that since Immigration Commissioner Jaime H. Morente—a former Philippine National Police and Philippine Constabulary official—took the reins of the agency, the rate of human smuggling across Philippine airports and ports “has dramatically decreased.”

Sandoval said there was a high rate of success of intercepted victims of human smuggling when Morente ordered the hiring of additional personnel to beef up the members of the TCEU and also to establish more of this office in all major international airports.

She noted that a positive result of the TCEU’s establishment is the high rate of interception of would-be workers in the Middle East and in developed economies that are magnets for Filipinos seeking employment abroad as a household service worker (HSW).

From January until October this year, the BI has intercepted 357 individuals found to be victims of human smuggling.

Last year, Sandoval said there were 352 individuals who were intercepted by the TCEU.

Also in 2018, there were 95,246 Filipinos whose departures were deferred because they were carrying incomplete or improper documents, she added.

An estimated 3,000 Filipinos leave for work abroad every day as the labor market overseas remains lucrative.

There’s so much money involved—in the form of salaries and emoluments received by, for example, those who legally work in the oil fields in the Middle East. But for those who were caught by the government’s ban on deployment, these professionals are willing to fork out cash just to go around the restrictions.

‘Unwilling victim’?

FOR HSWs employed in the homes of some rich Arab emirates, they too had to have lots of money to dispense with in the form of bribes to grease intricate gears of a syndicate that facilitates their illegal departure from any Philippine port or airport.

Thus, “human smuggling”—which has taken root in the country’s major airports—occurs. The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) differentiates human smuggling from TIP, as the former “usually does not include coercion” while the latter may or may involve one; also fraud, deception and abuse of vulnerability, among others.

The DILG’s Primer on Republic Act (RA) 10364, or the Expanded Anti-TIP Act of 2012, said human smuggling is “characterized by facilitating, for a fee, the illegal entry of a person into a foreign country.” The document said TIP, on the other hand, is “characterized by subsequent exploitation after the illegal entry of one person from one place to another or one country to another.”

The US Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, however, said that while an individual may pay a smuggler “to be transported into the [US] but, upon arrival, may be told he or she must pay additional money to the smuggler and be forced into commercial sex. That individual is now a trafficking victim.”

Going abroad

ECONOMIES like those in the Middle East have seen a steady demand for foreign labor, especially professionals and HSWs.

Countries that supply oil have created a huge demand for mechanical and chemical engineers, oil-rig crew, welders, computer analysts, etc.

According to recruitment expert Emmanuel S. Geslani, for those lucky professional workers who made it legally through sheer talent, the payscale ranges from $2,000 (P100,000) to $3,500 (P175,000) per month, excluding overtime pay.

On the other hand, Geslani said domestic workers are assured of a monthly $400 (P20,000 at the exchange rate of P50 to $1.)

He said the professionals directly hired by oil-rig companies, whether on-shore or offshore, are directed to proceed to Dubai where all their necessary documentations are processed, “without paying any fees.”

However, following the armed conflict in Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait, Iraq and Libya, bans have been imposed for new hires.

“Many Filipino experts and professionals are hired by an international agency to work where there are US military bases,” Geslani explained, adding that these contractors pay directly in American dollars.

He said following the outbreak of war in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, etc., only those with existing contracts and who went on vacation were allowed to return to these countries. However, because of the huge demand for cheap labor, some desperate Filipinos are willing to take the chance and leave Manila illegally, according to Geslani.

Getting nowhere

MANY professionals are employed in the Middle East oil platforms, such that there are 2,000 Filipino experts in Afghanistan, 2,000 in Libya and about 500 in Iraq, Geslani said, without citing his source of data.

“Nigeria continues to be a hub for overseas Filipinos, primarily workers involved in the oil, gas and construction industry of the country,” he added. As of 2011, there were 7,240 Filipinos in Nigeria, mostly professionals and spouses of Nigerian nationals, Geslani said.

Asked what recruitment agencies could do to stem the tide of illegal workers who are victims of human smuggling and who eventually end up languishing in some of the Philippine consulates in the Middle East, Geslani could only shrug his shoulders.

“There is nothing that the recruitment agencies could do,” he said. “They are helpless against organized syndicates whose illegal activities stole the sources of their major income.”

After their plane leaves the tarmac in Manila, Geslani said prospective workers take a circuitous route through Europe or North Africa to reach Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan via Dubai,” the jump-off point for those bound to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

On the other hand, since there is also ban for professional workers in areas where high-paying salaries are available—such as Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, among 20 or 25 other countries—prospective workers are willing to shell out anywhere from P50,000 ($981.03) to P70,000 ($1373.44) at the Naia, or P60,000 ($1177.23) at Clark International Airport, for an “assisted departure,” Geslani said.

Land, loans

EVEN Filipinos seeking only to work as household service workers abroad are willing to shell out substantial amounts.

Geslani said he knew some had to sell their meager possessions: a piece of inherited land, a domestic farm animal, their only car; or they borrow heavily from relatives and friends.

The recruitment consultant said that when they enter the Middle East, prospective HSWs are lured by prospects of “very fast deployment.” This means they no longer have to wait for months to go through the wringer: securing documents from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) and other government agencies.

“The prospective HSW undertakes this instead of going through the licensed agencies, the Tesda [Technical Education and Skills Development Authority] mandatory training, medical examination,” among others, Geslani explains. He said that despite this, there is no assurance that the applicant would qualify and, sadly, “many are eventually disqualified for physical and medical reasons.”

On the other hand, smugglers would promise the prospective HSWs they would be able to secure all the necessary papers “within two weeks then immediately fly them out of the country.”

“The syndicate also promises existing jobs at the destination country.”

Intercepted

JUST last November, airport immigration agents intercepted four Filipinos who attempted to leave the Naia to work in Libya where there is an ongoing civil war.

The BI has repeatedly warned prospective Filipino workers against skirting overseas deployment bans following the recent interception at Naia.

Port operations division chief Grifton Sp. Medina said the four men were intercepted at the departure area of the Naia 1 while about to board their flight to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

TCEU Chief Timotea Barizo said the four pretended to be tourists bound for the UAE.

When nabbed, they said they planned to proceed to Amman, Jordan, before proceeding to Libya where they were “hired to work” as aircondition technicians and pipe fitters.

“They said they were recruited to work in Libya despite the deployment ban at the initiative of their friends and relatives who are already working there,” Barizo added.

Morente said the incident should prompt BI officers at the airport to be more alert in enforcing the ban on the deployment of overseas workers to Libya where a civil war has been raging.

The agents revealed that the return tickets presented by the four were not valid, thus reinforcing their suspicion that these men are not tourists.

The Filipinos admitted during questioning that they would go to Libya because high-paying jobs await them because of their technical expertise.

No visa required

TO go around the ban, many job-seekers are advised to secure a tourist visa first or head to any visa-free destinations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, Geslani said. These are among the 60 countries where there is no visa requirement for Filipino tourists.

From these territories, the applicants could easily proceed to their intended destinations, hoping that the immigration agents in those countries would not notice that all they have is a tourist visa and not a working visa approved by a Philippine government agency. Once employed, their problem is how to stay longer than the six months usually allotted for tourists.

Hence, many are eventually caught overstaying and either jailed or brought to safeway houses to await repatriation to the Philippines.

This is the sad part of their tortuous journey, Geslani said.

Grinding poverty

ACCORDING to Geslani, majority of the applicants face a sad reality once they reach their intended destinations. The poor and barely educated Filipino would be duped, strung along and made to pay upfront hefty amounts, only to find out that there is no such existing job awaiting him or her in a foreign country.

In the end, these abused workers would end up being peddled to other relatives or families or else, working for long hours and more often abused by employers, many of whom treat HSW as virtual slaves, he said. When these workers have reached the end of their rope, they escape or commit suicide or hide at the Philippine consulates for protection.

The problem then becomes a burden to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which has to find ways, with its meager budget, to repatriate these unlucky Filipinos back to the Philippines, whose only sin was to attempt to find a greener pasture to escape the grinding poverty back home.

This state of affairs has to end sooner or later.

Hunting online

THE Internet appears to be the perfect way to conduct human exploitation.

This is according to Child Fund, a nongovernment organization advocating for pro-children legislation. The group said this has become so since the Internet has become more accessible to more countries including the Philippines.

It said this provides unscrupulous people a medium to victimize multiple people with minimal risk and accountability.

Proof of this, Child Fund said, is the small number of convictions for people who are engaged in what they call the “online sexual exploitation of children,” or Osec. The group is specifically campaigning against Osec.

“In 2018 alone, the Philippine government received more than 60,000 reports of Osec. Out of the thousands of reports, only 27 perpetrators were convicted,” Child Fund said.

Citing also the report of the International Justice Mission (IJM), it said only 20 of the 100 Osec perpetrators were arrested during IJM-organized rescue missions from 2011 to 2017.

‘User-friendly’

THE Philippine Overseas Employment Administration said the Internet is now also playing a role in the illegal recruitment and human trafficking of overseas Filipino workers.

In a phone interview, POEA Administrator Bernard P. Olalia told the BusinessMirror the agency had monitored the proliferation of bogus job offers online even as early as the previous administration.

In fact, to respond to this alarming trend, he said the POEA even put up a special division within its Anti-Illegal Recruitment branch, dedicated specifically to monitoring bogus overseas job offers on websites and social media like Facebook.

Olalia said they will immediately come out with public advisories to warn aspiring overseas Filipino workers from such spurious websites and social-media accounts.

He said they will then coordinate with Facebook to shut down the said accounts.

Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute head Susan Ople also agreed with Olalia on the role of social media like Facebook in combating cyber crimes.

“Government, especially DoLE [Department of Labor and Employment] should sit down with the DICT [Department of Information and Communication Technology] and the DoJ [Department of Justice] and come up with a joint campaign against the use of Facebook and other social-media platforms for illegal recruitment and human trafficking,” Ople said.

“A sit-down meeting between government and Facebook is critical. The bogus recruitment sites must be immediately shut down and its creators charged by proper authorities,” she added.

Basics, basics

WHEN it comes to going after tech-savy illegal recruiters and human traffickers, Olalia said sticking to the basics remains the most effective way to combating their operations.

The labor official emphasized that cyber criminals could only be held accountable through old-fashioned entrapment operations with the help of authorities.

“Many of the registered names and the address of the owners of the said accounts are usually fictitious, which makes it hard for authorities to arrest them,” Olalia said.

He added that an information campaign will also play a big role to minimize the number of victims of online human trafficking and illegal recruitment.

“In areas where we conducted massive information drives against illegal recruiters, we found out there were fewer victims of such illegal activities,” Olalia said.

“That is why we continue to sign agreements with more local government units to further improve our information drive at the grassroots level,” he added. source