Shipments of children, a darkly growing trade

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune

MANILA — The young girls often come in groups of five or more, clustered in the farthest sections of passenger ships, away from prying eyes. They hardly talk to each other, but only because they hardly know each other. They are mostly teenagers, some as young as 14. Most of them are excited about the trip to Manila, which is usually their first.

But some, like Julia, know they made the wrong decision the moment the ship pulls away.

“I was afraid the whole time. I don’t know what would happen to me,” said Julia, who spoke on the condition that her real name not be used.

Julia was 17 when a man approached her on the street in General Santos, a city in the southern Philippines, and offered her a job as a housemaid in Manila. She was promised a monthly salary of $55 – a handsome sum for a girl whose parents earn hardly half of that in a month. All the man asked of Julia was that she lie about her age and leave that same night.

Together with four other teenage girls, Julia boarded a passenger ship bound for Manila last November, one of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Filipino children being trafficked to Manila every day, most of them ending up in prostitution dens or in warehouses and factories where they are treated virtually as slaves.

It is a modus operandi that is being repeated all over the country, particularly in the poorest areas. As a result, the Philippines is now one of the hot spots in Southeast Asia for trafficking in persons, especially children, which generates approximately $10 billion a year worldwide, according to Unicef, the UN agency that works to protect children.

According to Unicef, a “good proportion” of the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 exploited children in the Philippines have been trafficked. A decade ago, a national survey determined that a quarter-million Filipino children were working and living away from their homes.

While most trafficking is done domestically, many of the Filipino victims end up as prostitutes in Japan, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Europe.

The Philippines is also a transit point and destination for victims from China, the U.S. State Department said in a report on human trafficking released in June last year.

“Endemic poverty, a high unemployment rate, a cultural propensity towards migration, a weak rule-of-law environment, and sex tourism all contribute to significant trafficking activity in the Philippines,” the report said.

“There’s an increasing number of trafficking going on now,” said Dolores Alforte, executive director for the Philippines of Ecpat, an international network that opposes child prostitution, trafficking and pornography.

A recent study by Alforte’s group found at least seven “high-risk areas” in the country: the cities of Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, Laoag, Dumaguete, Cebu, and Manila as well as the province of Bicol.

Although the government, along with nongovernmental groups, has been active in its campaign against child trafficking, traffickers – usually friends and acquaintances, even relatives, of the victims’ families – have always found ways to be a step ahead, said Vicky Juat, Unicef’s child protection officer in Manila.

For example, when the government and these organizations, along with the coast guard and the maritime police, increased their inspection of passenger ships, even establishing halfway houses for trafficked people in certain ports, the traffickers merely used other routes or shifted to buses and small ferries, which are not as well-monitored.

But even with increased vigilance by the authorities, the traffickers still manage to lure victims. At the port of Manila, hardly a day goes by without minors’ being abandoned by their recruiters for fear of the police, according to the Visayan Forum Foundation, a Unicef-supported private group that put up a halfway house inside the port compound.

The number of trafficked children is often increased by the conflicts in the south. According to Rebecca Barrious-Ballesteros, head of Visayan Forum’s protective care unit, the number of trafficked children increased tenfold during certain months in 2003, when fighting broke out between the government and Muslim insurgents in Mindanao.

“We’ve noticed an increase in the number of those we help in recent months,” Ballesteros said. “That could mean that more trafficking has been going on, but that could also mean that it is because of the increased intervention by government and nongovernment groups.”

Visayan Forum has cared for more than 2,000 trafficked Filipinos since October 2003.

Juat, the Unicef officer, said the Philippines continued to be a hot spot because of a number of factors, foremost of which is the grinding poverty in the provinces, where most of the victims come from.

“We are country that’s very vulnerable mainly because of the poverty,” Juat said. She said that in many cases parents agreed to send their children away, partly to ease the burden on them but mainly so these children could work and help out. Often, the recruiters would give advance money to the parents.

In one instance, the Visayan Forum found out that many of the victims they thought they had sent home turned up later at the organization’s halfway house, indicating a reluctance among many of the victims to go home. “They’d be going home to the same poor environment so they probably thought, ‘Why bother?”‘ said Unicef’s Juat.

In fact, Julia, the girl from General Santos City, does not plan to go home soon. “I’d rather stay here at the halfway house for a little while, maybe finish high school,” she said.

Julia had been rescued from her recruiters when a fellow passenger learned that the girls were going to be sold to a prostitution den and promptly reported the situation to the authorities.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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