Text, photo and video by JAKE SORIANO
A civil society leader and peace advocate warned of a rise in cases of human trafficking among evacuees in Maguindanao, with the continuing conflict in the province.
Amina Rasul, president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID), made the comment during the launch of Friends of Peace, a network of advocates organized by Cotabato archbishop Orlando Quevedo.
“If we are going to see massive concentrations of refugees because of armed conflict, certainly, human trafficking is going to be on the rise,” Rasul said.
“Friends of Peace” has called for sobriety in the aftermath of the January 25 incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, in which close to 70 people were killed, among them 44 members of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police, and 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
In the aftermath of that encounter, the Armed Forces has cracked down on armed groups in the area, launching an offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), which is the armed wing of the MILF.
“When you’re talking about human trafficking, there’s really a spike every time there’s a conflict. Take a look at Zamboanga,” Rasul explained, referring to the September 2013 armed crisis between government forces and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Syndicates preyed on displaced persons, and local anti-trafficking groups have uncovered a prostitution operation within the city’s biggest evacuation center. (See Prostitution ring in Zambo evacuation center exposed)
More than 100,000 residents were displaced recently in Maguindanao following military operations against the BIFF.
Rasul said the evacuees, also called bakwits, are left vulnerable to human traffickers because of the loss of their homes and livelihoods.
“As of last week, there were 125,000 IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Maguindanao,”she said.
“Every time you have these military operations, your problem is not just the IDPs, but your problem is human trafficking, human rights violations and a host of other problems.”
Conflict and displacement, along with widespread poverty not just in Maguindanao but in the entire Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have long been cited as reasons why residents find attractive risky employment opportunities abroad or within the country.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a 2013 study noted that Mindanao seems to be a “prominent source of irregular migrants, particularly females, to Malaysia and the Middle East.”
Informal brokers are also rampant particularly in Maguindanao, and often provide services like falsification of identities and documents. (See Armed conflict, falsified docs make trafficking easier in Maguindanao)
Quevedo, Mindanao’s first cardinal, meanwhile said that the problem of human trafficking is “part of social injustice.”
In his personal notes distributed to the media, the Cotabato prelate identified addressing the lack of employment opportunities in Mindanao as well as massive poverty and human trafficking among the long-term goals of Friends of Peace.
Organized before the now infamous Mamasapano incident, Friends of Peace initially aimed to monitor congressional deliberations on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), a bill that Quevedo said “could be improved” but is a “a very good basis for just and lasting peace in Mindanao.”
The aftermath of January 25 however halted the progress of the bill in Congress and left prospects for peace in the country’s restive South in tatters.
Some 67 people died that day in an armed encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao including 44 members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF).
The SAF was targeting suspected bomb experts Zulkifli bin Hir (Marwan) and Abdul Basit Usman.
Some quarters have accused the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of coddling both, a charge the MILF leadership has denied.
The MILF and the Philippine government had earlier in 2014 signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), an ostensibly final peace deal after 17 years of negotiations.
The Mamasapano incident has also plunged President Benigno Aquino III’s net satisfaction ratings to their lowest since he assumed office in 2010.
Aquino, according to the Board of Inquiry (BOI) Mamasapano report, broke the chain of command by, among others, allowing the participation of suspended PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima in the SAF operation.
Amid the fury after the Mamasapano incident, Quevedo appealed for sobriety and moderation particularly among members of the media and legislators.
During the launch, he spoke against the “sudden eruption of bias and prejudice” after Mamasapano.
“We saw also how the values and mindsets of legislators reinforce the public sentiment of anger and bias and prejudice,” he said.
He said the concern of Friends of Peace is to help restore “a certain amount of sobriety and moderation and rationality, as well as objectivity in order that legislators can look at the BBL on its own merits.”
Quevedo added that the group is thinking of inviting media and legislators to come to Maguindanao to see the sufferings of people there.
“(They must come) so that media and legislators will not look at the other side as the other, but we are all together in this,”he said. “What they get from a distance may be very different from what they get from close quarters.”
The long-term goal of the network, he said, is to promote a culture of peace based on social justice.
Other Friends of Peace members include historian Rudy Rodil, lawyer Christian Monsod, former senator Santanina Rasul and entrepreneur Vicente Lao.