Mindanao conflict fuels trafficking

Shahana [not her real name] was 14 when she took her first trip abroad - to work as a domestic helper in Kuwait.

Her documents were false, enabling her to leave the country as a minor. "The war made it impossible for my family to survive. We could no longer farm because we lost our land. Going abroad was our only hope." Shahana is from Shariff Aguak, a municipality in the war-torn Philippine province of Mindanao.

The 2009 US State Department Report indicates that "there is an increasing number of women and children from Mindanao trafficked internally and trans-internationally for domestic work. Traffickers use land and sea transportation to transfer victims from island provinces to major cities. Muslim girls are trafficked by fellow Muslims."

Sherryl Luceno, regional coordinator for the Zamboanga branch of the Visayan Forum Foundation (VFF), an NGO that rescues and intercepts trafficked people, told IRIN: "Extreme poverty is bad enough, but combined with the unstable peace and order situation, many are driven to desperation. Even if they are being recruited illegally, they take the risk."

No end in sight

Almost four decades of armed conflict in Mindanao between government troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighting for autonomy has stunted growth in the mineral-rich province.

According to the UN Development Programme, seven out of 10 provinces ranked worst on the country's human development ratings are in Mindanao.

Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
The conflict in Mindanao between government forces and the MILF has left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands displaced

On a national average, the number of people living on less than US$2 a day is 45 percent, a figure estimated to be much higher in Mindanao.

In August 2008, renewed hostilities broke out when a memorandum that would have given the MILF control over land they claimed to be ancestral domain was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Nearly 400 people were killed and 700,000 people displaced.

Data gathered by the Maguindanao Provincial Social Welfare and Development Office and the Mindanao Emergency Response Network showed that 174,370 persons were still displaced as of December 2009.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, estimates that tens of thousands are staying with host communities, but counting has reportedly been discontinued by the government.

Back-door exit

Zamboanga, a port city at the southern most part of the Philippines, is known as a back door out of the country, offering easy passage to Malaysia.

"A lot of girls are taken out of the country from private ports which do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, and taken to Malaysia. From there, they are transported to the Middle East," says Luceno.

Movement from one island to another in the Philippines archipelago is common, making it easier for traffickers. "They just tell the port officials they are crossing over to Tawi-Tawi to see family so they are not asked for identification papers or passports."

Based on the data compiled by the VFF from last May, they identified 98 victims as coming from war zone areas such as Basilan and Sulu.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
A young woman at the Notre Dame Dulawan evacuation centre in Datu Piang, where some 300 families are sheltering

Lucrative business

Although there is no official database to track the number of trafficked individuals per year, the US State Department reports that about 800,000 Filipinos are trafficked out of the country every year, mostly women.

An Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act was passed in 2003, but there have only been 13 convictions. Two were from Zamboanga. Another two cases from Zamboanga are awaiting a decision.

The dismal number of convictions has been attributed to factors endemic to the Philippine judicial system: corruption, a high turnover of judges and lack of proper evidence.

Darlene Pajarito, third Assistant City Prosecutor of Zamboanga, heads the Overseas Passenger Assist Center, which aims to investigate, intercept victims and prosecute traffickers at the point of departure.

"It is difficult to prosecute the traffickers at the point of departure because you need to prove that selling will actually take place," says Pajarito.

"This law has not hindered traffickers. It is a lucrative business for traffickers, who make as much as $750 for each girl. You can just imagine how much they make for a group of 10 girls," Pajarito adds.

The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 downgraded the Philippines' classification to Tier 2 Watch-list Status, citing "the government's ability to effectively prosecute trafficking crimes as severely limited by an inefficient judicial system".

A Tier 3 assessment could result in sanctions such as the withholding of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance.