With zero budget, Tawi-Tawi may lose war against traffickers

Potential victims of human trafficking are routinely intercepted in Bongao but there is no temporary shelter for them.

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi—When authorities intercepted here 48 Filipinos believed to have been recruited by human trafficking syndicates for work in Malaysia, they thought they were doing the potential victims a favor. Little did they know the victims considered them villains.

The Bongao Inter-agency Task force Against Trafficking in Persons (BIATFAT) rounded up the 48 on April 10, its biggest single-day trafficking catch of the year. But there was no place to put the people in.

Because the local Department of Social Welfare and Development had no temporary shelter for the rescued victims, the task force scrambled to find one for them.

The victims spent three nights in the function hall of the Catholic parish church here. But the function hall only had tables and chairs. There were no sleeping mats and blankets for the victims, who included minors less than 10 years old and senior citizens. Everyone shared the same space, and some women complained about the lack of facilities for feminine hygiene.

The experience left some victims feeling like they had been thrown in detention, instead of being rescued and processed for the trip back home.

“Some complained, ‘Dinakip kami ng DSWD (We were arrested by DSWD),’” said Nursalina Amsang-Alcala, focal person of the antitrafficking in persons (ATIP) arm of the Tawi-Tawi DSWD.

Tawi-Tawi is a trafficking hotspot, a favored backdoor used by syndicates to sneak their victims out of the country, given its geographic and cultural proximity to Malaysia. Yet for this year, the Tawi-Tawi DSWD, the agency in charge of caring for the rescued victims and sending them back home, has a whopping budget of zero for its antitrafficking efforts.

Amsang-Alcala said authorities intercept up to 40 potential trafficking victims a week at the Bongao port and the Sanga-Sanga airport. As of April 10, Tawi-Tawi authorities have apprehended 164 potential victims.

All the victims are turned over to the DSWD. But the agency simply can’t cope with the volume of victims it has to care for.

The lack of facilities for victims of human trafficking is one of the problems noted by the U.S. Department of State in its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report.

“Facilities were generally inadequate to address the specific needs of trafficking victims, and at times, shelters lacked the space necessary to accommodate the influx of victims following large-scale law enforcement operations,” the report said about the Philippines.

In Bongao, there is no allocation for the construction of a halfway house and no immediate plans of setting up one, said Haroun Alrashid Lucman Jr., DSWD Secretary for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and concurrent regional vice governor.

Already five months into 2014, the budget of the DSWD in Tawi-Tawi “was not yet downloaded,” meaning there are still no funds available. The budget remains a project proposal instead of actual funds the department could use for its antitrafficking drive, Lucman’s office said. The DSWD blamed the long and complicated budget process.

Even in previous years, the Tawi-Tawi DSWD struggled with meager budgets for its antitrafficking efforts. It received only P197,000 in 2012 and P180,000 in 2013.

Divided by the number of potential trafficking victims the DSWD handled during those years in Tawi-Tawi, the amounts come down to only about P307.33 per individual in 2012 and P638.30 in 2013.

Amsang-Alcala said the DSWD in the province had proposed a budget of P1,300 for each trafficking victim it processes.

Authorities said the DSWD budget per victim rose to P638.30 in 2013 only because there were much fewer potential trafficking victims last year. Two events contributed to this: the standoff in which Muslim militants attacked Sabah over territorial claims, and the siege where Muslim rebels attacked seaside villages in Zamboanga City.

Still, even P638.30, the larger amount, is insufficient even for the cost of transportation alone. A one-way economy ferry ticket from Bongao to Zamboanga City costs P1,000.

Add to this the cost of feeding large groups of rescued potential trafficking victims for their entire stay in Tawi-Tawi, the budget does not even come close to what is needed.

The ferry from Zamboanga arrives in Bongao around noontime on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and leaves for Zamboanga in the evening of the same days. Because it takes time to process the rescued victims, a large group intercepted on a Tuesday ferry would have no chance at all of taking the ferry on the same day back to Zamboanga. They would have to wait for the Thursday ferry, which arrives in Zamboanga at noon on Friday.

All in all, this means at least 10 meals for each of the rescued victims for the entire duration of their custody under the DSWD in Tawi-Tawi, before they are turned over to the DSWD in Zamboanga. If one meal costs P50, then the total allocation for food for each rescued victim amounts to P500.

That’s P1,500 for transportation and food costs alone, and already way over even the P1,300 proposal by the DSWD.

In an interview with VERA Files, DSWD Provincial Social Work Officer Hania Aliakbar said the DSWD has to source funds from the department savings just to cope with the influx of potential trafficking victims. But when it gets really bad, she said, the only service the department could provide is counseling for the victims.

Because Tawi-Tawi is part of ARMM, an autonomous region, the DSWD here gets its funds directly from the region instead of the national government.

Lucman’s office said the amounts for each potential trafficking victim got so small because “Tawi-Tawi is the transit point for TIP in the Philippines, many were intercepted.”

The approved P100 million budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) for 2013 also does not trickle down to Tawi-Tawi. Its antitrafficking body, the BIATFAT, works under the Bongao local government unit.

Processing the potential victims, especially a huge group like the 48, adds to the distress of the victims because it takes time. The Tawi-Tawi Maritime Police and Provincial Police Office (PPO) asks them relevant questions to find out if anyone from the group is a recruiter or a trafficker. The police then have to formally turn the group over to the DSWD.

Amsang-Alcala said, some potential victims previously processed by the DSWD who eventually managed to make it to Malaysia even send her mocking messages. “Some would even text me, ‘Hindi kayo nagbantay ng maayos. Nakalusot kami (You did not do your job well. We’ve dodged you this time),’” she said.

There had been instances when some rescued potential victims tried to escape from the custody of DSWD to get to their recruiters, says Amsang-Alcala.

Meanwhile, BIATFAT focal person Rosabella Sulani said recruiters and traffickers are only eager to be reunited with their victims, as they have already invested in them. This is why BIATFAT makes sure that wherever victims are temporarily housed is guarded by government security personnel.

Some passengers of boats from Zamboanga City to Bongao are potential victims of human trafficking.

Members of the police tasked to guard the victims face a different problem.

“My personnel go hungry working long hours to guard them,” says Inspector Elmira Relox, chief of the Tawi-Tawi PPO Women and Children Protection Desk. The DSWD only provides food for the victims, not the authorities.

The DSWD in Bongao thus tries to expedite the process and immediately arranges for the transfer of victims to Zamboanga City for further processing. According to Amsang-Alcala, there were even instances when victims had to spend the night at the Bongao port itself, and wait there for the ferry that would take them to Zamboanga the next day.

The situation is only slightly better in Zamboanga, where apprehended potential victims of trafficking are divided into shelters managed by the nongovernmental organization Visayan Forum, the DSWD-Zamboanga and the Zamboanga City local government.

“The facilities here are still not enough,” says Jacqueline Repana, a social worker for the Visayan Forum. The NGO’s halfway house at the Zamboanga City port has a maximum capacity of 24 persons.

“But we have had a situation when we managed to fit 60 people in here,” Repana says.

Even Fiscal Ivy Damayo of the Sea-based Anti-trafficking Task Force, who prosecutes human trafficking cases in Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi, could not help but lament: “Talo talaga kami (We’re at a disadvantage). We don’t have the financial resources that the human traffickers have.”— With Mark Anthony Kong

(This story is part of VERA Files’ project Human Trafficking Casewatch supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Facility and Embassy of Canada. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)


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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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