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Human trafficking prevalent in post-typhoon Philippines

Almost two months after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the central part of the Philippines, people are still suffering from hunger, dehydration, displacement and emotional stress, as well as another tragedy often linked to natural disasters: human trafficking. 

Out of the thousands of survivors relocated to Manila and Cebu, a yet unknown number of youngsters have been snatched by mafias to be sold to prostitution dens and modern slavemasters, according to Bishop Broderick Pabillo, convenor of the Philippines' Interfaith Movement Against Human Trafficking and Manila's auxiliary bishop.

"During disaster situations [like Haiyan], a lot of people are desperate to look for work, shelter, and education, among other things. These particular vulnerabilities are the usual things offered to them by exploiters," Pabillo told Devex. "It's sad that victims are already suffering the effects of disasters and are still being put under human trafficking."

Haiyan affected over 16 million people with 4 million displaced, according to the country's disaster management agency. Although a number of victims have decided to come back and rebuild their lives in their devastated communities in Leyte and Samar, the majority remain in Manila and Cebu.

These people include women and children, the most vulnerable to human trafficking, a long-standing concern in the Philippines, described as "a source ... destination and transit country for men, women and children who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor" by the, part of the U.S.-based aid group FHI 360.

Challenges and solutions

Some of the most common forms of human trafficking include prostitution, child labor and forced labor, with either rural-urban transitions or just rural ones in the case of agricultural labor with none to very low wages.

Human trafficking is sadly common in the Philippines after calamities like Haiyan.

"These cases are definitely not isolated. There are times when Filipinos are the ones who approach [these foreigners]," he said. "According to a study we conducted, those who exploit are usually the victims' kins or close ties ... with most of them ignorant that they are being exploited already."

One of the most pressing challenges in addressing this issue is precisely this lack of awareness to the forms and causes of human trafficking. Being aware improves the rescue rate of human trafficking because people will be able to save themselves — something Pabillo hopes the aid and development community can further contribute to: "[Being aware] helps because when a potential victim knows who to call or who to go to, response will be immediate."

Another challenge is the rate and manner of prosecution when the traffickers are caught.

The Philippine judicial system is notorious for being a hollow institution with conviction and prosecution rates remaining very low due to incompetence or corruption. The bishop noted that having a high conviction and prosecution rate in human trafficking cases would set an example for those who are thinking of committing such crimes in the future, especially those belonging to larger syndicates and criminal groups.

Lastly, rehabilitation and psychological treatment for victims needs to be improved significantly.

Pabillo emphasized that the development community can make a significant mark in this aspect because of their expertise and technical knowledge that can fast-track the usually long and arduous process of recovery.

"It's a challenge for all of us to eradicate human trafficking as a form of modern day slavery," he concluded, adding that Haiyan's example should start a more earnest focus on human trafficking in the country as stronger and more devastating disasters are expected to hit the Philippines.

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