Lessons for combating human trafficking in post-calamity situations

Traffickers view post-disaster situations as fertile ground for recruitment and exploitation. How can governments and development organizations prevent trafficking after natural disasters? Photo by: Imagens Evangélicas / CC BY

The Philippines — and the development community — should do more to raise awareness of and battle human trafficking, a longstanding problem that has been exacerbated by Typhoon Haiyan.

This is according to Bishop Broderick Pabillo, convener of the Philippines’ Interfaith Movement Against Human Trafficking, who spoke to Devex recently about the challenges and possible solutions to this quagmire.

Manila’s auxiliary bishop, however, is not the first to sound the alarm on the heightened risk of human trafficking post-Haiyan. UNICEF, Save the Children Canada, World Vision, Plan International, Caritas Switzerland, U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey — who led a bipartisan fact-finding congressional delegation to storm-ravaged areas in the Philippines in November — and Secretary of the Philippine Department of Justice Leila de Lima have all acknowledged the gravity of this threat.

“People get trafficked because they have less power to protect themselves,” Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, CEO of Philippine nongovernmental organization Visayan Forum Foundation, noted. “This lack of power is a result of poverty, lack of access to education and protective information, and unemployment.”

Known for its “labor export” strategy and its large population of overseas migrant workers, the Philippines has been described in the U.S. Department of State 2013 Trafficking in Persons report as a source of women, men and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. And while most victims are trafficked to countries in the Middle East, East Asia and Southeast Asia, internal trafficking — usually from rural to urban areas — remains a pressing problem as well. Child sex tourism is also a problem in the Philippines and across other developing countries in Asia.

The U.S. Department of State continues to classify the Philippines as a tier 2 country, which means that although the country is implementing significant measures toward meeting the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, it is not yet fully compliant. One glaring weakness is the inability of the judicial system to hold trafficking offenders accountable, with a disproportionately low rate of prosecutions and convictions.

Filipino migrant workers have always been vulnerable to human trafficking, but gaps in the system are even more easily exploited by predators in a post-disaster situation, when people crammed in evacuation centers struggle to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic event.

In the absence of basic human necessities, including food, medicine, shelter, livelihood, social support systems or entertainment, disaster victims are more inclined to pursue alternative sources of income, even if it puts their well-being at risk. According to Flores-Oebanda, traffickers are aware of these dynamics and view post-disaster situations as fertile ground for recruitment and exploitation.

Traffickers can also masquerade as aid workers or representatives of government-accredited employment agencies to recruit desperate survivors, sometimes in partnership with organized crime syndicates and corrupt officials.

According to Elise Young, vice president for policy and government affairs of Women Thrive Worldwide, the poverty and instability that natural disasters leave in their wake can make such situations “prime grounds for trafficking.”

“The adults may be willing to migrate for work, not realizing that the ‘job’ is prostitution or forced labor,” Young said. “Parents might also reluctantly send their children to cities or elsewhere to work or live with family, but the men and women who are trusted to protect their children are connected to underground trafficking networks.

The risk is even greater for children separated from their families, as they may be believed missing or dead when they have actually been victimized by traffickers.

“The absence of functional child protection [systems] (especially during disasters when most government institutions are not functional) will put children at higher risk of being trafficked,” Allan Lee Nuñez, child protection program officer at ChildFund International, explained in an interview with Devex. In the case of Haiyan, there have been several reported cases of unaccompanied children being brought to Manila or Cebu, Nuñez added.

Plan International is concerned about the problem as well. Over the weekend, the international NGO urged the Philippine government to look into suspected child trafficking cases in Eastern Samar, one of the provinces severely affected by the typhoon. The government has been quick to assuage concerns, noting that a “special anti-trafficking commission” has been established for this purpose.

“We do not want children and women to be victimized by these criminals, especially those who came from the calamity area,” Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said at a recent official press briefing.

Some development organizations are attempting to strengthen their prevention and response mechanisms and coordination with local governments to reduce the risk of trafficking. Many of these prevention strategies were informed by lessons learned from the surge in human trafficking cases after natural disasters such as the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2004 tsunami that affected India, Thailand and Indonesia.

Based on interviews with experts and a review of best practices in preventing human trafficking in disaster and conflict zones, Devex has compiled a list of recommendations for relief and development workers operating in post-disaster situations. Some of these anti-trafficking strategies are already being deployed in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

Agree on and apply one definition of human trafficking

The United Nations enforced the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2003. Commonly referred to as the Palermo Protocol, the agreement was meant to strengthen global efforts to combat human trafficking and includes, among others, a definition of what constitutes human trafficking.

There are 117 signatories to the protocol, many of which have expressed reservation about a provision guiding dispute settlements. Article 15, paragraph 2 notes that disagreements between countries on the interpretation or application of the protocol should be referred to the International Court of Justice.

Even the word “trafficking” can have divergent definitions.

Generally, trafficking implies victims are moved across local and national borders. But Luis CdeBaca, ambassador-at-large for the U.S. Agency for International Development Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, emphasized in a speech about combating trafficking in disaster zones that the test to determine the occurrence of trafficking according to the Palermo Protocol should not be based on whether “someone has been moved,” but whether exploitation is taking place.

The one-dimensional focus on movement may compromise interior enforcement of anti-trafficking policies as a result of neglecting sites such as evacuation centers, schools or homes of victims’ families and friends, where compelled servitude may also happen.

Consent is another problematic issue. The Philippines is among the countries with stronger laws against trafficking. Following international norms, the Philippines’ Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 disregards consent in prosecuting cases. As long as force, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power and bribery — among other exploitative and coercive acts — are involved, recruiters can be prosecuted for human trafficking instead of being charged with illegal recruitment, which has lower penalties.

But this is not always the case. In some countries, recruiters are charged only with human smuggling or illegal recruitment if it is proven that the victims agreed to the arrangement, regardless whether consent was gained through fraudulent means. Anti-trafficking experts are quick to point out that in disaster and conflict situations, consent from desperate victims can come all too easy.

Track and assess risk patterns based on available data

Last year’s Trafficking in Persons report noted that people from rural areas are being trafficked to urban centers such as Manila and Cebu and tourist destinations, including Boracay, Olongapo and Puerto Galera. The typhoon has only exacerbated this problem.

Visayan Forum field workers in Cebu, one of the urban centers closest to the worst-hit areas, noted an influx of sex workers in bars and nightclubs after the typhoon. Flores-Oebanda also received accounts that women who previously worked as salesgirls in department stores in Tacloban have been seen in red-light districts in Cebu. The organization is investigating these accusations and exploring rescue options.

Similarly, Plan International flagged likely sex trafficking cases from Eastern Samar. Five high school girls from the typhoon-hit province were reported to have been recruited to work at a bakery in Manila. “But what kind of bakery is open only from 6 p.m. until midnight?” Plan International Philippines anti-trafficking project officer Shirley Vastero told Agence France-Presse.

The Child Protection Working Group of the Philippines has installed help desks at evacuation exit and entry points, such as in Villamor Air Base in Metro Manila, where evacuees are provided counseling and information on missing children is registered, according to ChildFund’s Nuñez. The Philippine government has also established hotlines and offices to accommodate inquiries and reports on trafficking activities.

Experts assert that this “catch system” needs to be in place at more ports, terminals and airports, especially in provinces that have been identified as trafficking hotspots. Other basic measures recommended include improving monitoring of adults traveling from calamity areas with children and securing evacuation camps so unauthorized persons are kept out.

Integrate countertrafficking interventions

Anti-trafficking workers suggest that their programs should cut across other major development programs such as livelihood, education and health, especially following disasters or in conflict situations.

“People need to know that they are in danger. They need to be warned. And they need to know where they can run to and who they can ask help from,” Flores-Oebanda said.

In the post-Haiyan Philippines, the Visayan Forum is publicizing anti-trafficking messages and other protective information on relief goods and materials to ensure survivors have easy access to it, while the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Labor and Employment, and Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking announced plans to conduct an information campaign to educate internally displaced persons arriving in Manila about their rights and how they can detect illegal recruiters. Regular radio broadcasts against human illegal recruiters can now be heard in the affected areas.

Grass-roots women’s organizations and human trafficking prevention groups need to be part of the project design for post-disaster humanitarian work efforts. “Although [including anti-trafficking specialists] can be difficult due to the urgent nature of this work, it is a critical component to help identify and prevent potential trafficking traps before they arise,” Women Thrive Worldwide’s Young stressed.

One possible next step for donor agencies and NGOs is to formally integrate trafficking prevention strategies, training and budget lines into their own disaster risk reduction plans for future response, Young added.

“It’s critical that agencies and aid responders [are] really looking for people at risk for trafficking,” Jill Marie Gerschutz Bell, senior legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said. This requires training so that aid responders can easily spot signs of trafficking and funding to help reunite families.

The U.S. government’s latest Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act has created a grant-making program that allows the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Person and its implementing partners to respond faster to emergencies that increase vulnerability to trafficking, including natural disasters.

Understand the socio-cultural context and engage the local community

Similar to many other development or humanitarian interventions, human trafficking risk reduction and prevention measures should be implemented with an understanding of the specific socio-cultural contexts and other social nuances.

“Trafficking is incredibly complex, and depends on a country’s culture, economic and political stability, and so much more,” Young said.

After the Haiti earthquake, many children were sent into the restavec system, where they were made to stay as domestic servants with a host family. Over time, the system earned a reputation for exposing children to abuse and exploitation.

In many parts of the Philippines, disaster victims often turn to extended families for help. But apart from the risk that these distant relatives may be traffickers, they may not have enough resources to support these displaced families. If these host families are not identified and given the necessary assistance, disaster victims will continue to remain vulnerable to trafficking.

Enlisting the support of community watch groups can also be beneficial. The Visayan Forum’s Oebanda-Flores believes such groups are useful in tracking illegal recruiters and may be familiar with former victims who are afraid to report crimes.

UNICEF, meanwhile, is working on crafting special messages to advise parents on how to keep their children safe and prevent accidental separation. Kiryn Lanning, ChildFund’s technical coordinator for child protection, added that other agencies are implementing interventions targeted at building family unity, to strengthen families’ ability to cope and protect children from risk.

Parents and community members are involved in the establishment and operation of the growing number of child-friendly “safe spaces” in disaster-hit areas.

Scrutinize marriage brokering and adoption processes

After the Haiti earthquake, children were trafficked through adoption schemes as orphans even if their parents were alive. Similar factors exist in the Philippines that make it likely for children to be victimized in the same way since the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan.

“One of the things that’s particular to the Philippines is you don’t have a regular adoption system in the country,” Gerschutz Bell said. While this can make it easier for family members to take care of orphaned and abandoned children, the “potential for abuse” is also there.

According to UNICEF, more than 5.5 million children were affected by the typhoon, and at least 1.8 million have been displaced. Given that many of these children are separated from their families and find it difficult to connect with living relatives, it is very easy for traffickers — and pedophiles — to take advantage in the pretext of helping to reunite them with their families or find them new homes.

In addition, reports have begun surfacing from the Philippine government of suspected traffickers and illegal international marriage brokers being arrested in Tacloban. South Korea is a top destination for illegal mail-order brides from the Philippines and the Department of Foreign affairs has warned against South Korean marriage agents.

Create livelihood opportunities

Even if there is some knowledge of trafficking risks, survivors still need a source of income to help them refuse lucrative and deceptive job offers. “The sooner … family livelihood can be restored, the less vulnerable that family or individuals within it are to being caught up in some sort of trafficking net,” Gerschutz Bell said.

Government agencies and donors have begun implementing food-for-work programs, and have started working on providing low-cost housing and sending children back to school.

UNICEF, Save the Children and the Philippine government have opened “child-friendly” spaces in Tacloban to make up for the destruction of day care centers and schools and as a safe base for when parents need to be on the move, looking for jobs and rebuilding their houses.

While UNICEF provides tents, recreation kits and specialized supplies for children, the local government supplies day care workers, social workers, animators and youth volunteers.

Amid these efforts, Flores-Oebanda cautioned that local government units should maintain job facilitation desks, at least in the midterm, to monitor recruitment practices in the community.

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About the author

  • Sharmila Parmanand

    Sharmila is currently an instructor at the University of Vermont. She has a master’s degree in gender and development and has supervised and conducted research projects on human trafficking and related issues. She has also worked as a debate and public-speaking consultant in more than 20 countries.