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Unintended consequences

In the years since human trafficking, especially for prostitution or sexual exploitation purposes, have hit local headlines, a flurry of laws and regulations have flown off the legislature and government agencies. Often, these efforts were aided, if not instigated, by women’s groups and NGOs working in the field. But why is trafficking still a thorny problem? And why is the number of trafficked men and women increasing and not decreasing?

A policy brief on “Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia,” prepared by the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD) with the assistance of AusAID, attempts to explain this conundrum, and suggests possible solutions.

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“Overall trafficking prosecution and conviction rates are low,” the brief notes in the section on the Philippines. “The lack of witness protection outside of a trial means many survivors choose not to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. The Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act does not recognize the right of trafficked persons to access legal compensation.”

And while women and women’s groups are at the forefront of the battle against trafficking, their dominance in the field does little to help all victims, many of them men.

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“Most officers of special anti-trafficking police units are women, even though this does not correspond with the gender profile of trafficked persons… Focusing on offenses against women and children overlooks men who are victims of trafficking,” says the brief.

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OTHER features of the law and of regulations, while well-meaning, have led to unintended consequences. The issue brief cites the fact that today “women under the age of 23 are not permitted to migrate for domestic work.” While this may have been intended for the laudable purpose of protecting young women, “this is discriminatory and may push young women migrants into situations where they face increased risk of trafficking.”

The same is true for government bans on countries where abuse and exploitation of women migrants have been reported. While meant to protect them, such rules “have pushed migrants into taking unsafe routes, working without legal status and paying higher fees (bribes) to leave the country as tourists.” The same limitations, the issue brief points out, “can also increase difficulties for Philippine migrant workers already in the proscribed country and further reduce their access to justice.”

Sometimes, the problem lies not so much in “unintended consequences” as in the lack of adequate resources. “Policies to support victims of trafficking abroad are jeopardized by inadequate resourcing and training of designated embassy staff and frontline agencies. In some cases, survivors of trafficking are accommodated in the Filipino Workers Resource Centers in destination countries. What should be a limited stay while their case is investigated sometimes extends for long periods and survivors have been asked to pay for their accommodations after the first year.”

You may also remember the cases of sexual abuse and exploitation lodged by migrant women against Filipino officials in these resource centers, who sought to profit from the women by using them as unpaid household helpers or worse, farmed them out to local clients as prostitutes.

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The section on the Philippines contains a list of recommendations to fully address the problem of trafficking, whether for prostitution or exploitative labor.

First is that “authorities should act on the areas of focus identified in the overview document and ensure that the Philippines’ law on violence against women and trafficking in persons does not conflate trafficking in persons and prostitution, in keeping with international law.”

The document also pushes for the adoption and implementation of the RH Law to “ensure migrants, returnee migrants and survivors of trafficking have access to available, acceptable and good quality health services, including sexual and reproductive health.”

Also imperative is that the government “provide adequate and sustainable funds for the effective implementation of the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012, streamlining the current multidisciplinary response.”

Other suggestions: Repeal discriminatory restrictions on women’s migration on the bases of age; investigate complaints of corruption promptly and thoroughly and bring prosecutions; establish accountability and monitoring systems across and coherence between State and civil society anti-trafficking initiatives to reduce the risk of re-trafficking; and increase the number and strengthen the role of labor inspectors and strengthen the regulation and monitoring of recruitment agents, including thorough unannounced inspections and effective complaint mechanisms.

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From the start, Filipino migrant workers have been legally required to use employment agencies, “which should protect their rights,” the report notes.

However, “the size of the market for overseas workers has enabled traffickers to organize within the recruitment process, and some of these workers are then trafficked. They face enormous placement fees and pay about 72 percent of their wages to actors including brokers, recruiters, employers and government. Bribery and other forms of corruption exist across the trafficking process… Reducing these fees and financial pressures would reduce the pressure on younger generations to migrate.”

This may be the most painful consequence of our people’s history of migration: that it has cut across generations, with insecurity, need and exploitation haunting them, and the law of unintended consequences hounding all our best efforts to curb the most negative facets of the phenomenon.

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TAGS: AusAID, Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012, Filipino migrant workers, Filipino Workers Resource Centers, Human Trafficking, prostitution, sexual abuse, Sexual Exploitation
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