While the country strives to survive the pandemic, problems with human trafficking loom ahead.
Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Jaime Morente warned the public against seven common schemes employed by trafficking syndicates and illegal recruiters in the country to enable their prospective victims to work abroad during the pandemic.
Since September 2020, despite worldwide travel restrictions due to Covid-19, the BI has foiled over 130 attempts of human trafficking in some of the country’s major international airports and has warned the public against common modi operandi, including counterfeit documents, as well as departure attempts for countries with imposed deployment bans.
The BI’s Travel Control and Enforcement Unit (TCEU), primarily in charge of intercepting illegal recruitment and trafficking victims, submitted an extensive report to Morente on common schemes employed by traffickers and illegal recruiters.
“These modern-day trafficking attempts are not the ones that you see on TV forcefully trafficking people across borders,” said Morente. “Traffickers now use modern methods—technology, falsification, and deceit. They sweet talk their victims and entice them to agree to such schemes, hence the need to send out a warning for people not to fall prey to these illegals,” he added.
A common modus is the falsification of overseas employment certificate (OEC), or tampering with Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) documents. Legitimate Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are required to present an OEC, records of which are linked in BI’s shared database with the POEA. However, in instances when records are not found in the BI’s system, passengers are referred to the POEA’s Labor Assistance Center at the airport for manual verification.
“Here we see instances where fake labor employees would make annotations on the certifications supposedly given by the POEA,” said Morente.
The TCEU also reported visa discrepancies in some documents of OFWs bound for Saudi Arabia. “In some of our interceptions, the actual job position of these OFWs is different from the one declared in their OECs. Often, they are given permits to work for a higher position, but end up working in households and paid salaries lower than industry standards,” said Morente.
Another scheme victimizes former OFWs by using their old OEC, but are given a separate tourist visa to work for a different employer, and are sometimes even sent to a third country. Last April 5, the BI reported the interception of a male victim under such scheme at the Clark International Airport.
The BI is also on the look-out for Iraq-bound tourists, wherein former OFWs in Iraq pose as tourists bound for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Upon inspection, BI officers are able to determine that their true destination is Iraq, where a total deployment ban for all OFWs is still in place.
BI bares trafficking schemes during the pandemic at the country’s major ports
Aside from this, fake marriages to justify departure is pretty common, said the BI. On Tuesday, a female passenger attempted to depart for the UAE to work as a babysitter on a visit visa, by pretending to visit her alleged husband. However, upon inspection, said husband has already sponsored a different wife. The victim later admitted that she does not know her supposed husband.
Pseudo-training and assessment programs, often used to pretend that Filipinos would only attend month-long trainings, have also been noted to be a common scheme for traffickers.
The TCEU has also intercepted seafarers with invalid OECs and inappropriate visas. More than 70 seafarers were not permitted to depart since September for presenting OECs but with only business or tourist visas. “The use of business or tourist visas for work is not permitted. Only those holding valid and existing employment visas could be considered legitimate OFWs,” Morente stated.
According to Morente, all seven schemes aim to circumvent the Guidelines on Departure Formalities for International-bound passengers, issued by the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT).
“Victims are often labeled as willing victims because in most cases, they agreed knowing fully that they are presenting wrong documents,” said Morente. “But there is no such thing as a willing victim. Illegal recruiters and human traffickers use sly techniques to trick their victims into agreeing into something illegal. Aspiring OFWs should not fall for their tricks, and report them to the appropriate authorities,” he added.
Apart from the said schemes, another cause for concern of the BI is the use of fraudulently acquired documents of young, underage Filipinas to work as household helpers abroad. “It is very difficult to intercept these victims, as they are holding complete, valid, and original documents, but upon assessment our officers would find out that these were fraudulently acquired through misrepresentation,” shared Morente.
He recounted that in 2018 to 2019, more than 200 underage and minor workers were intercepted for presenting documents that make them appear older. “This shows that the web of trafficking is really big and complex. The recent Senate hearings allowed us to see another layer of this rotten scheme, and hopefully we can, layer after layer, peel each one off until those at its core are caught and sanctioned,” he added.
Morente stated that the BI has undergone deep internal cleansing, and hopes to see that the subsequent hearings investigating human trafficking would be able to unmask the perpetrators of these illegal activities and destroy the system from its roots.
That the pandemic, according to Morente, has become an exploited opportunity for trafficking syndicates and illegal recruiters to harm individuals by preying on their needs and vulnerabilities.
He urged those who wish to work abroad to always check if their agencies are duly registered with the POEA before entering into transactions.
He then assured the public that with evolving trafficking schemes even during the pandemic, the BI will continue exercising heightened vigilance against syndicates attempting to illegally deploy workers abroad.