by Philippine Daily Inquirer, 21 Mar 2021
After last year’s “pastillas” corruption scandal that involved illegally bringing in Chinese nationals to work in Pogos, the Bureau of Immigration is once again in hot water, this time over the trafficking of Filipino women to such countries as Syria.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chair of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality, will lead an investigation next week on allegations that corrupt BI officers have been collecting “outbound pastillas,” a reference to the money — at least P50,000, five times higher than the P10,000 bribe paid by Chinese individuals entering the Philippines — that every Filipino woman is reportedly charged to be allowed to pass through airport immigration without question.
Most of these women were promised jobs in the United Arab Emirates, according to a report in The Washington Post, only to end up being sold as “modern-day slaves” in war-torn Syria, where they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by their employers. One victim the Post was able to interview was only 12 years old when she was recruited from Cotabato City three years ago. The young woman said she was promised a job in Dubai, only to be trafficked to Syria under a falsified age.
At Hontiveros’ online briefing last Tuesday, “Alice,” one of the women presented, recounted how she was escorted by immigration officers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from inspection to boarding when she left the country in 2018: “Someone met us at the gate, then another person at line No. 1… until we reached the plane, [then] another person accompanied us.” She was eventually “bought” by a Syrian employer for $1,000, while another victim, “Belen,” was sold for $9,000 in 2019. Belen said she was escorted by a certain “Karlo” at Naia, who instructed immigration officers to let her leave without problems. Another victim, “Carol,” said the BI officers did not question her papers despite her having presented only a tourist visa to the UAE.
At least 25 Filipino women are now staying at the Philippine Embassy’s shelter in Damascus after having run away from their abusive Syrian employers, according to Hontiveros. The senator said she would request the BI to furnish the names of the immigration officers who stamped the women’s passports, as this was a violation of Republic Act No. 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003. “There’s a huge penalty for this and it is nonbailable. This is a case of large-scale trafficking, and trafficking in syndicate. The punishment here is life imprisonment,” she warned.
Aside from life imprisonment, RA 9208 further provides that government employees who illegally issue or approve the issuance of travel exit clearances, passports, and other similar documents should be dismissed from service and barred permanently from public office, and their retirement and other benefits forfeited.
The illegal recruitment and trafficking of Filipino workers has been a decades-long concern. A 2001 report published by the United Nations Global Programme against Trafficking in Human Beings noted that, with millions of Filipinos seeking employment opportunities as skilled construction workers, engineers, nurses, caregivers, entertainers, and domestic helpers in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, “intermediaries who offer their services for the expeditious but illegal alternatives continue to exist, and this contributes to the problem of trafficking.” And, as the “pastillas” scam underscores, human trafficking syndicates thrive with the help of corrupt accomplices inside government agencies charged with managing the sprawling, institutionalized labor export process, their victims meanwhile ending up subjected to harsh conditions in foreign countries.
Not a few workers have come back to the Philippines in a box, the latest case being Mary Anne Daynolo, an OFW in the UAE who was reported missing in March 2020, and found dead last January or 10 months later. The Department of Foreign Affairs has vowed to investigate Daynolo’s death; it would “leave no stone unturned for justice,” declared Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. in February. Locsin also said he would “make sure” that Vida Soraya Verzosa, the chargé d’affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, will participate in the hearings on the latest trafficking case of Filipino women to Syria. Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente likewise promised to fully cooperate with the Senate investigation, adding the pro forma assurance that the bureau “is committed in our duty as the last line of defense in protecting our kababayan from syndicates committing illegal recruitment and human trafficking.”
Words and more words for now, like the honeyed spiels of illegal recruiters—unless the government shows it is once and for all going after the stubborn “pastillas” racket at the BI and other such trafficking schemes, and cutting out the sweets for good.