Sunday, March 16, 2008

Halfway Houses at Ports Protect Trafficking Victims

From the Inquirer:

THE PHILIPPINES- Fifteen-year-old “Ana” (not her real name) talks and dresses the way girls her age do. She wears trendy clothes imitated from models she sees in magazines and television shows. She also loves to have fun, and to sing. Beneath her smiles and bubbly personality, however, is a child in pain.

A female recruiter, who promised Ana a job as a storekeeper in Cavite, flew her from her home province of Bukidnon to Manila in January 2006. From there, she was brought to Cavite and forced to work as a guest relations officer (GRO) in a bar and, eventually, as a prostitute.

With three other girls—all minors—Ana was made to work from 4 p.m. till past midnight. If the girls refused to cooperate, “Steve,” a nephew of the bar owner, would beat them or douse them with water. Ana’s first customers were Coast Guard members who forced her to have sex with them for a fee. She took the experience with a grain of salt. “It’s OK. I was raped by my father when I was 7 years old,” Ana said, further revealing a darker part of her life.

For 10 months, Ana’s life was controlled by the bar owners, who offered her like a merchandise to patrons.

A store owner near the bars where she worked saw her plight and asked her to work in the store. In her new job, Ana tried to forget her past, but her immediate community had already stereotyped her as a prostitute. Every time she went to the market wearing shorts or revealing clothes, children would call her a “phagerper” or a prostitute, she said.

When the bars were raided by police, Ana was among those rounded up. At that time, she was tending the store near the bars. When the officers found that she was a minor, police turned her over to the local social welfare office, which, in turn, brought her to the Visayan Forum Foundation Inc. (VF), a nongovernment organization working for the welfare of domestic workers and victims of sexual trade.

The VF operates halfway houses in strategic ports across the country, like the Manila International Airport, North Harbor in Manila, Batangas International Port, Port of Matnog in Sorsogon, and Sasa Port in Davao. These are among the first crisis centers ever built in ports in Asia. Many of the victims are usually rescued in the ports.

Locally known as the Bahay Silungan sa Daungan (BSSD), the centers house prostituted women and children who were found by authorities and those who ran away from their employers. They offer free food and temporary accommodation for up to six months while the victims await their return to their families. Most of the victims have been referred by the VF’s port partners.

The foundation’s social workers are trained to complement the investigation to build legal cases against suspected traffickers. They counsel victims to make informed decisions, to avoid falling into exploitative labor arrangement and prostitution, and explore the possibility of pursuing legal action.

With the help of the VF and the government’s Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), Ana filed a case against her recruiter and the bar owners who forced her to work as prostitute. The campaign against human trafficking received a big boost when Republic Act No. 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act was enacted in 2003. Subsequently, the IACAT, spearheaded by the Department of Justice, was formed to help prosecute offenders.

Since the law was passed, however, government lawyers have managed to win only 10 cases against those accused of human trafficking, according to Senior State Prosecutor Deanna Perez, head of the
IACAT secretariat. “The main problem is that witnesses back out,” Perez said. Victims refuse to cooperate for fear of reprisal. Even social workers and volunteers have experienced being harassed by recruiters, she said.

With regard to Ana’s case, a VF social worker said that after two hearings, the owners of one of the bars asked them to drop the case.

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