The dialogue to fight human trafficking has begun
To be an advocate of any cause is not easy. You have to keep track of everything and anything related to your advocacy, while defining the principles and positions that you wish to stake your life and reputation on. In my case, it was easy. The passion for my cause – fighting for the rights of our local and overseas workers – was embedded early enough in my DNA. I do admire men and women whose very lives are built around noble causes.
Thus, I felt privileged to work with three wonderful women: Atty. Gwen Pimentel of the Association of Child Caring Agencies in the Philippines, Amina Rasul-Bernardo of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and Cecile Oebanda-Flores of the Visayan Forum Foundation. These three selfless and very capable women have been fighting for their own causes even without the glare of media.
We held a national dialogue on human trafficking between leaders in government and civil society with the help of the USAID, a grant-giving body of the United States government. The dialogue at the G Hotel in Manila was attended by officials from the executive and legislative branch and civil society. Despite some differences in opinion, there was hope in the room. We were all on the same side – the challenge is in policy coherence and sustainability.
Our search for anti-trafficking champions yielded best results on that day. Vice-President Jejomar Binay couldn’t make it but he sent his chief political officer, Erwin Maceda, to deliver his message. The vice-president expressed his full support to the anti-trafficking campaign and promised to do what he can to help us in this fight. Boxing champion and now congressman Manny Pacquiao enter the room without much fanfare. He brought a big boost of energy to the room, and drew chuckles when he spoke and said that he, too, was an OFW. It was heartwarming to hear him say that he is willing to help raise public awareness about the problem. “Sasamahan ko kayo,” he said, while promising to work for additional funds for the work of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking and amendments to the Anti-Trafficking Act.
Senator Bongbong Marcos who spoke about the need for a practical approach to the challenge raised by the US State Department to the Philippines on the need to improve our standing in the fight against trafficking. Based on the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report of the US government, the Philippines is once again in the Tier 2 Watch List. Unless significant efforts are made, we are in danger of falling to Tier 3 which could mean a potential loss of some $250 million in non-humanitarian aid from the US. He stressed the need for government to have a clear to-do list to win the war against trafficking. Senator Pia Cayetano virtually said the same thing, saying that she will fight for additional funds. “I am the least of your problems because I have always been fighting for the cause of women and children. I just want to make sure that if I do work for the budgets required to fight trafficking, that the agencies are prepared to show how they will use the money.”
Much earlier in the day, DFA Undersecretary Esteban Conejos vigorously defended the Philippine record and accused the US State Department of not being fair in their findings. He said that cases on forced labor fall under the category of illegal recruitment, but that these cases were not counted or considered by the US State Department. Nor were partnerships with the NGOs included in the performance rating. The undersecretary also said that the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking did not need any budget because each agency could draw on its own funds. His reaction came after two successive presentations about the US Trafficking in Persons Report and policy gaps that need to be addressed for a more effective campaign versus trafficking.
During the open forum, former Secretary Imelda Nicolas disagreed with the statements of Undersecretary Conejos. She cited the need for a budget for IACAT precisely because it was meant to coordinate all efforts against trafficking. There were other important statements made by Senator Aquilino Pimentel (need to prosecute illegal recruiters) and Senator Santanina Rasul (she was alerted to this problem way back in the late ’80s as chair of the Senate committee on women but at that time, the victims were reluctant to speak). Congresswoman Beng Climaco also spoke about the need to take the anti-trafficking campaign more seriously.
The Bureau of Immigration (BI) chief Marcelo Libanan presented his agency’s side with a powerpoint presentation. He lamented that the BI has zero budget for anti-trafficking while pointing out the flaws in the current law. OWWA Administrator Carmelita Dimzon and officials from the NBI, DSWD, and other agencies also affirmed their support.
It was a long day but a productive one mainly because we who were present knew that the real dialogue had just begun. More meaningful conversations leading to purposeful actions must follow.