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Insights and Analysis

Philippines Upgraded to Tier 1 Ranking in Trafficking in Persons Report

July 13, 2016

By Maribel Buenaobra and Maria Roda Cisnero

On June 30, just as Noynoy Aquino officially ended his six-year presidency and incoming president Rodrigo Duterte took the reins, the Philippines welcomed the announcement that it had reached Tier 1 on the U.S. State Department’s Global Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the first Southeast Asian country to achieve the report’s highest ranking. Having been at Tier 2 status for the last five years, the upgrade stands as an important recognition of the country’s strong anti-trafficking efforts.

Filipino over

There are 10 million Filipinos working overseas – often as domestic workers – who remain at risk of slavery as they attempt to flee poverty at home. Photo/Flickr user/Mopaw Foundation

The TIP Report places each country onto one of three tiers based on the extent of their governments’ efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” found in the United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

The report specifically credited the Philippine government’s conviction of 42 traffickers, including five for online child sex trafficking and two for labor trafficking; conviction of two immigration officers and charging of five officials allegedly complicit in trafficking; increased efforts to prevent trafficking of migrant workers; provision of TIP training for government officials; and prosecution of eight cases against child sex tourists.

Under former President Aquino’s leadership, the Philippines has more than tripled convictions of traffickers and almost quadrupled the number of victims rescued. The Philippine government has channeled significant resources to the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, partly because it did not want to jeopardize its Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funding assistance over human trafficking concerns. The MCC takes human trafficking seriously and has included it as an eligibility issue. In 2010, the MCC granted the Philippines a five-year development compact for investments in roads, community development projects, and improvements to the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

In addition, the Philippine government has undertaken serious judicial and legal reform, law enforcement training, and victim assistance. For instance, although domestic protection for male victims remains limited, the government opened and fully funded a temporary shelter for male Filipino trafficking victims in Saudi Arabia. Another example is the Department of Tourism which has undertaken the training of DoT staff throughout the country in the use or application of the Gender Toolkit for Tourism. In late 2014, the USAID COMPETE project provided technical assistance to support the finalization and printing of a Gender Toolkit for Tourism which includes a gender analysis of the tourism industry highlighting human trafficking risks related to tourism. The toolkit was designed to guide tourism project planners, designers, and evaluators to develop gender-responsive tourism programs and projects.

While Tier 1 is the highest ranking, it does not mean that a country has no human trafficking problem. On the contrary, a Tier 1 ranking indicates that a government has acknowledged the existence of human trafficking, made efforts to address the problem, and complied with the TVPA’s minimum standards. Each year, governments need to demonstrate appreciable progress in combating trafficking to maintain a Tier 1 ranking.

Nevertheless, some have questioned the upgrade, citing the Philippines’ growing online sex industry, and the 10 million Filipinos working overseas – often as domestic workers – who remain at risk of slavery as they attempt to flee poverty at home.

While the Tier 1 upgrade is a major accomplishment for the Philippine government, it cannot remain complacent in fighting human trafficking, and must address the recommendations provided by the 2016 TIP Report. These include the provision of shelter and protection resources, with a particular focus on male victims and mental health provision; programs that reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, including child sex tourism and online child sexual exploitation; increased efforts to address labor trafficking; increased investigation and prosecution of government officials for trafficking and trafficking-related offenses; expanded efforts to ensure victim-friendly criminal justice proceedings for witnesses; implement continuous trial mechanism pilot program to increase the speed of trafficking prosecutions; and addressing child soldier recruitment.

As the Duterte administration sets its policy agenda, it’s important that it sustain the anti-trafficking efforts accomplished by the Aquino administration in order to maintain the Tier 1 ranking, lest it receive criticisms from citizens who expect much from this administration. It should continue to provide funds to support the anti-trafficking efforts of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), encourage public-private partnerships to promote gender-sensitive and a trafficking-free tourism industry, and support efforts of the Department of Justice and anti-graft bodies in building cases against government officials complicit in human trafficking activities.

In addition, because trafficking in persons is a transnational crime that involves sending, receiving, and transit countries, and goes beyond physical boundaries with the proliferation of pornographic websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, a regional approach to addressing this crime is critical. The technological advances in information and communication technology have allowed traffickers to conduct transactions in a faster, cheaper, and more profitable way. The internet has allowed traffickers to work from home, remain anonymous, and operate in many countries.

Similarly, the onset of cheaper airfares is both a boon and bane for the Philippines. While it allows ease of travel to Filipinos, it also enables traffickers to travel to provinces and recruit victims at lower costs than in previous decades. Left unchecked, domestic tourism can render communities more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation. It is imperative, therefore, that sending, transit, and receiving countries collaborate in addressing trafficking in persons by implementing mutual legal assistance to trafficked victims, commit to respect the rights of overseas workers, including undocumented ones, and coordinate repatriation and reintegration of trafficked victims. Regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should also commit to implement regional initiatives to address trafficking in persons and exploitation of overseas workers.

In 2017, the Philippines will serve as chair of ASEAN. This is an ideal opportunity for the Duterte administration to push for a regional approach to trafficking in persons, and at the very least, approximate the accomplishments achieved by the government agencies and nongovernmental organizations under the Aquino administration to address trafficking in persons. Otherwise, the upgrade to Tier 1 could be short-lived.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in the Philippines and Maria Roda Cisnero is a program officer there. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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