If this isn’t your first visit to Free Is a Verb, you probably know by now that human trafficking victims, like a flesh-and-bone version of the Matrix, are a secret hidden all around us: on big farms, in small restaurants, high-class escort services, low-rent massage parlors, and lots more. These victims may have been moved within a country, or–to trap them further behind a language barrier–across a regional or national border. They may be men, women, or children, Asian, American, or European, but one thing most of them have in common is this: they’re poor–and not just poor in money, but poor in education, opportunity, and hope, which is why they grasp in desperation at the bait traffickers dangle, of jobs and better lives elsewhere. But where do these folks come from? We’ve read the books and articles; we’ve watched documentaries; we’ve heard presentations from NGO’s. But it was time to see for ourselves.
In the Philippines, many trafficking victims come from Samar, a poor island both geographically and mentally on the nation’s fringe. So when we say poor, how poor are we talking? Well, the Philippines as a whole is in the bottom third economically of countries worldwide, then Samar’s three provinces are in the botton fifth in the Philippines. What this means in practical terms is that a family of six in Samar limps along on the $1,600-1,800 a year or so that a rice farmer or fisherman makes, many people cook over wood fires because they can’t afford gas, and almost half the teenagers there drop out of high school because they have to work. So when we ask ourselves why any responsible parent would risk their child being trafficked, the answer isn’t that they’re stupid or uncaring–it’s that they aren’t offered a better choice.
Before we went to Samar, we secretly wondered if all of the stories we’d encountered in our research over the past few years were just the worst-case scenario. Only in Samar did we realize that these stories were not exceptions, but rather the norm.
The stories we heard were sadly familiar: a friend-of-a-friend or visitor to the village tells a girl about a job in the big city. She can make good money as a katulong (Tagalog for “helper”, i.e. maid), a waitress, or a nanny. She and a few of her girlfriends take the bait, often with the blessing of their parents, and before they know it they are on a bus or boat to Manila, Cebu, Angeles City, Malaysia, or beyond. When they arrive, their cell phones are confiscated and they are delivered to a bar or house that exists to provide prostitution to the local clientele. They are told that they must work as prostitutes to pay off their transportation fee, but are never paid a peso or told how much of their debt remains. Unless they are rescued by concerned parents, NGOs, or the police (who are sometimes among their customers), their dreary existence stretches before them until they get sick from STDs or simply get too old to be useful to their owners.
During our one-week visit (graciously hosted by the IJM Samar office staff), we interviewed trafficking victims, their relatives, NGO workers, a human rights lawyer, and a few government workers who worked in the department of social welfare and development (DSWD). We recorded a number of stories, all of them confirming what we’ve read before. We came back to Manila with a new love for this forgotten province and its people, and a deep desire to see things improve for them.
Thanks largely to International Justice Mission’s tireless work, every one of the girls we interviewed was a success story. While all of the girls had been trafficked, and many of them had spent at least a week as prisoners in bars, all of them were rescued before they were raped or forced to work as prostitutes.
One of the girls shared with us a story of how she was finally forced by the mamasan, or pimp, to go out with a customer. She was only fifteen years old and was terrified. The customer took her to a hotel, but when she cried and told him that she and her little sister had been tricked into coming to Manila and had no idea they’d be working as prostitutes, he had compassion on her and didn’t force her to have sex with him. He even offered to help her escape, but she refused since her sister was still back at the house where the girls were kept.
At the same time, the girls’ mother had contacted both IJM and the DSWD as soon as she realized her daughters were gone. Even though she’d received a phone call from them saying that they were in Manila and that everything was okay, she suspected they were in danger because someone immediately took the phone away from her daughters before they could finish the conversation. After a 30-hour bus+ferry ride to Manila, she helped identify the house based on her daughter’s description, accompanied the police and IJM staff on the raid, and the girls were set free.
It was inspiring to meet these girls who were so brave, and so grateful to have been rescued from what might have been. Thanks to organizations like IJM and various aftercare partners, they are receiving an education and counseling, and some of them are even attending college.
But for every girl we talked to who had a happy ending, we heard about many whose fate was not so fortunate. Our work in metro Manila reminds us daily of how important appropriate aftercare is for women who have suffered the trauma of prostitution; our visit to Samar taught us just how essential it is to work to prevent trafficking in the first place.
* * * * *
So what can you do to help? A few relatively simple things:
1. If you’re in the Philippines, write a quick note or make a phone call to the political or economic sections of the U.S. Embassy here. Send an email to the director of the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation thanking them for the work they’ve done fighting trafficking and closing bars employing minors for prostitution.
2. If you’re in the U.S., call or email the chairs of the following government committees responsible for U.S. foreign aid:
3. If you’re on the internet, become a fan of the Manila U.S. Embassy on facebook or follow them on Twitter, and comment thanking Ambassador Thomas for the time he’s spent supporting IJM’s work in Samar and other anti-trafficking efforts.
-Nate & Laura