When Anne was given a chance to work abroad as a waitress, it was an offer she could not refuse. Life in her impoverished village of Tarlac, north of Manila, offered few opportunities. Her family did not have money to care for her sick brother. “The recruiter was from our town,” she recalls. “I was told that all girls they recruited now have better lives and can help their families. It was as if God sent me an answer to my problems.”
Within a few weeks, Anne, then 16, was working in a sex den in Malaysia.
“When we arrived, they took me to a hotel room with my new boss and he raped me. After that I was sold to different men, sometimes 10 men a day,” she says. “We were sex slaves. The only rest we had was to go to the toilet. They beat us if we refused to do what a customer wanted. And our boss had men who held us down and forced us to use drugs.” Anne and 60 other Filipinas worked under slave like conditions – under constant watch by guards and sleeping on the floor in padlocked rooms: “They would starve us – sometimes three of us would share a cup of noodles. And if we did not make enough money, we did not eat.”
Anne became one of the lucky ones when a customer helped her escape. But she is just one of tens of thousands of Filipinas trafficked each year, women whose stories might end differently but share the same beginnings. Local human traffickers target the poorest communities, lure young girls and women away with promises of a better job and trap them with no resources, contacts and very little chance of escape.
The Philippines has become very fertile ground for human traffickers. Because many live in poverty , the remittances sent home by relatives working abroad improve the lives of families left behind and fuel the country’s economic growth. But this has also led to a “culture of migration”. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, president of Visayan Forum, a Philippine NGO campaigning against human trafficking, explains: “The majority of Filipinos believe that finding work outside the country is the only way to have a better life.”
It is this desperation to take any job opportunity, combined with the porous borders of the archipelago’s 7,000 islands and widespread corruption among government agencies that have allowed trafficking to operate with impunity. For the past two years, the Philippines has been on a US Department of State watch list of countries that America thinks could do better at combatting traffickers.
On Monday, the latest state department assessment found the country had made “significant efforts” in taking on the gangs that smuggle people overseas, partly a reflection of 25 trafficking convictions secured over the last year – up from nine the previous year. But it added: “Law enforcement officials’ complicity in human trafficking remains a pervasive problem in the Philippines, and corruption at all levels of government enables traffickers to prosper.”
There have been multiple signs in the last year that the Philippine government has started to take its fight against trafficking more seriously. In 2009, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), the body tasked with coordinating the implementation of the law, had a budget of only 10m pesos (£144,000). In 2011, that budget has been increased to more than 75m. Groups on the front lines have been trained, and private-sector partnerships formed with shipping companies and transport agencies.
The supreme court has directed that the resolution of human trafficking cases be a priority and many amendments are also being filed to strengthen the law.
Police chief inspector Anita Araulio, of the Philippine national police’s women and children’s protection desk, is encouraged by this new sense of teamwork: “Before we felt isolated, like we were doing it on our own. But now we have support from the national government and work hand in hand with prosecutors and the result is so positive.
“We are so encouraged and inspired to do our work.”
Multi-agency task forces have also been created to monitor key ports of exit, and according to a Unicef report, nearly 57,000 people (not all of whom are trafficking victims) have been stopped from illegally leaving the country in the past year.
Oebanda says because trafficking operates in secret, it is essential to stop the exploitation at transit points: “We need to stop it before they consummate it. It’s very difficult to rescue when they are already exploited. It’s the only time when both trafficker and victims are visible. After they arrive to their destination, they are just dissolved and its difficult to track them.”
The 25 prosecutions this year may appear a small step considering the 1,000-odd cases pending, and thousands more that never go to court because victims have been bought off, or threatened, by their recruiters. But for Anne, who has filed her own case against her traffickers, it offers hope that keeps her determination steadfast: “They must be punished for the inhumane things they did. I wanted to bring them to justice so no more girls can fall prey to their ploy.”
“But I also hope rich countries who happen to be the source of customers will also take action to stop that. Without customers, this would not happen.
Oebanda adds: “You cannot stop hunting traffickers when you know how they are exploiting our women. We cannot afford to lose hope – every small or big step is important. This is really a fight that Filipino cannot afford to lose- the Filipinos are not for sale.”