Armed conflict, falsified docs make trafficking easier in Maguindanao

Groups of young girls traveling together are usually seen at the Cotabato airport. (Photo by Artha Kira Paredes)

COTABATO CITY— All she knew was that she was on her way to Manila to train as a domestic helper abroad.

Waiting for her flight at the Cotabato airport’s pre-departure area, the frail-looking girl who was probably in her late teens, sniffed every so often while keeping her veil in place. She said she was from Maguindanao and was just recovering from a bug.

She was keen on making the trip, she said, so she could start earning money to cover the expenses she has incurred in applying for a job abroad. She came with a group of at least 12 young girls, all presumably riding an airplane for the first time.

That wasn’t the only thing they had in common, though. Looking too young to be overseas workers, they were all likely carrying falsified documents.

That particular day in fact, while the young woman managed to board the plane to Manila, two of her companions were barred from taking the flight because they had identical names in the documents they presented.

Airport workers here have observed that in many instances, young women who huddle and queue in groups are victims of human traffickers. They bear “manufactured” names and falsified birth certificates known as baklas.

“Traffickers had changed them (the names)” to match those in promo tickets purchased months before, says a source at the airport in Awang, Maguindanao, who is witness to this all too common scenario.

Poor and displaced by armed conflicts, young women are easy prey to human traffickers who operate in Maguindanao and other provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslin Mindanao (ARMM), authorities say.

“In general most of them or at least 95 percent are from displaced families,” says Odin Abdula, an official of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA-ARMM). He said majority of the victims come from communities affected by the insurgency or clan wars, also known as rido.

What adds to the pain is that victims are easily convinced because most of the illegal recruiters are also their relatives. “They feel secure because of the blood affiliation,” he said, adding that “victims are lured by promises of better life, not knowing these individuals are also taking advantage of their weaknesses.”

Lawyer Laisa Masuhud –Alamia, the Executive Secretary of the ARMM Office of the Regional Governor, said at a forum late last year that Maguindanao, the most populous of the five ARMM provinces, had the “most number of trafficked and potential victims” in the region.

She said the Department of Social Welfare and Development documented 29 victims in 2009, 24 in 2010, 113 in 2011 and 49 in 2012. Based on DSWD profiles, majority of trafficking victims and survivors in the region were aged 17, she said. The oldest recorded was 32 while the youngest was 14 and most were girls.

The regional government has strengthened its anti-human trafficking efforts with the establishment of a provincial inter-agency council against trafficking (PIACAT) in Maguindanao, she said on Monday. Authorities are closely watching the towns of Parang, Mamasapano, South Upi, and North Upi by convening the town’s municipal inter-agency council against trafficking (MIACAT). A MIACAT is now also present in Parang and Siasi in Sulu and in Languyan in Tawi-tawi province, she added.

The anti-trafficking task force is now working in all the five ARMM provinces. The PIACATs are all under the ARMM Council Against Trafficking (ACAT), which was created on November 2012.

Alamia also told VERA Files that non-uniformed policemen are now deployed at the Awang airport to watch out for and deter incidents of trafficking. There are also sea-based law enforcers with the help of the Philippine National Police maritime and women’s desk, including airport police and the Coast Guard, she added.

Apart from poverty and armed conflict, the absence of proper records and access to falsified documents are also aiding traffickers.

ARMM Interior and Local Government Secretary Anwar Malang in an interview admitted that the “problem with registration records” is precisely what that makes the residents of Maguindanao and the rest in the autonomous region easy victims.

DILG Secretary Malang headed ACAT when it started in late 2012. Photo by AMIEL MARK CAGAYAN

Malang, former head of the ACAT, said there is a “big relationship between the registration of people and illegal and fake documents.” He told VERA Files: “If you don’t have the birth certificate, then you can have just a certificate by having a late registration. You can use any other name…”

Malang said that residents of ARMM were “not keen” to have the birth of their children recorded before, citing illiteracy and inactivity of the local civil registries in the region. The government is planning to put up mobile registration centers to address the problem.

The Department of Foreign Affairs requires a birth certificate from the National Statistics Office or one that is authenticated by said office from new passport applicants. In the absence of a birth record, an applicant can apply for delayed birth registration at the local civil registry of his or her birth place.

OWWA’s Abdula says the traffickers have connections at the Bureau of Immigration, making it tough for enforcers to stamp out the problem.

This connivance was exposed in the investigations following the repatriation late last year of Filipino workers from Syria who were trafficked from the ARMM.

Based on the national IACAT report, 604 of the 1,470 repatriated Filipinos from Syria in 2012 came from the ARMM.

Some of the gaps and challenges in the fight against human trafficking include poor local government support in implementing policies and legislation concerning trafficking, insufficient human and financial resources to facilitate protection, rescue reintegration and recovery of trafficked survivors, according to Alamia.

So far no illegal recruiters or traffickers have been prosecuted in the ARMM.

(This story was produced under VERA Files’ Trafficking Casewatch, a project supported by the Embassy of the United States and the Embassy of Canada)


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Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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