Friday, July 13, 2007

Big bucks trade

Juan Mercado -
"The flight schedule was pinned on the wall. And the pimps argued that they had an understanding with 'the chief,'" recalled the team fielded by Fr. Shay Cullen. "But the cops who came with us were from another station."

As payoff discussions raged, the Preda team sped off with a mother and a child. "If only we could have rescued all the girls, it'd have been a great day's work," the Preda team said. "Unfortunately, that was impossible. They were all teenagers. And one had a baby."

Welcome to what the US Department of Justice ranks as the third largest criminal enterprise worldwide: human trafficking. It is big bucks. "Traders" rake in $9.5 billion yearly in sleaze, the United Nations Development Fund for Women's Noeleen Heyzer said at an Asian Development Bank meeting.

Trafficking ranges from prostitution and debt bondage to forced labor and exploitation of children as sex slaves or soldiers. In this grim underground bazaar, firm data are hard to come by. "The stigma placed on victims of sexual exploitation" is one reason. There isn't "even a name for the problem at community level." Few victims are aware of their rights.

The extent is under-reported, but what emerges jolts. Fifty-four out of every 100 trafficked Filipino children are between 15 and 17 years old. "Guesstimates" of the number of child prostitutes range from 60,000 to 100,000.

In Joey Velasco's "Hapag Ng Pagasa" ["Table of Hope"] painting of 12 street kids at dinner with Christ on a slum table, one model -- Tinay, 5 -- had been repeatedly raped. "She has this faraway look," wails the aunt.

Globally, 12.3 million migrants are enslaved or in sexual servitude at any one time, says the International Labor Organization. Massive poverty, corruption and armed conflict force-feed desperate migrants, in ever greater numbers, into affluent nations that in "an age of migration alarm" are closing borders.

Girls from the villages of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines are lured into cities or abroad with pledges of well-paying jobs. Many end up in brothels. "It is not acceptable to have a crisis of survival where the only way out for a family to survive is by trafficking their daughters," Heyzer added.

"We will leave your family P3,000, which will be your usual salary in Cebu," the recruiter told the teenager, University of Nevada's Riki Repanis recalls in "Prostitution, Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery in the Philippines." The ill father rose to hug his daughter, crying: "Be careful, be careful." All nine siblings wept. But the girl insisted that she must go and help her family. "So they went to Cebu and were brought to Kamagayan, the old place of prostitution in Cebu City. That first night, she was raped by eight men."

Government disbanded its airport anti-trafficking team a month ago. Why? Because every manjack trafficked. Read and squirm over what the US State Department asserted in its "Trafficking Persons Report" of June 2007:

"The Philippines is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor. A significant number of Filipino men and women, who migrate for work, are subjected to involuntary servitude in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Africa, North America and Europe.

"Women and children are trafficked within the Philippines, primarily from rural areas in the Visayas and Mindanao, to urban areas. (They do) forced labor as domestic and factory workers, and in the drug trade, and for sexual exploitation.

"A smaller number of women are occasionally trafficked from the People's Republic of China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to the Philippines for sexual exploitation... Foreign tourists, particularly other Asians, sexually exploit women and children."

Cebu City is a major destination point for traffickers. Samar, Bohol, Leyte and Negros Occidental record a rising number of victims. So do a number or Mindanao cities.

Some traffickers harness the Internet for their operations. "Many women end up working for pornography websites where they perform sexual acts in front of webcams for paying customers."

Countries need to "raise public awareness and create public outrage," adds Heyzer. And they must "make it difficult for traffickers to operate with impunity."

The Philippine record is mixed. In Olongapo City, foreign sex traffickers harass Catholic and other groups by lodging multiple libel and other suits. A major target has been Father Cullen and his hospices for the abused. Department of Justice officials seek to blunt this harassment.

The Philippines was the first country to adopt in 2003 an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. And Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge Teodoro Bay sentenced a couple to 160 years in prison for peddling "starlets" to moneyed sex trade clients. There are seven convictions now.

Overall the Philippines has enough laws, says the Nevada University study. "The problem is implementation."

In Cebu, a task force operated ineptly. Police were untrained. Lawyers lacked understanding of the new law. "The net effect seems to be punishment of the girls, not the perpetrators."

"They sit there and look, like this [Cebu] 'barangay' [neighborhood district] official," the Nevada University study quotes a nun helping girls trapped in the red light district. "But he has his own bars. Many of the brothels there are owned by policemen. 'Oh, he is my customer,' a girl will tell us. And now, he is the one who imprisons me."

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