MANILA, Philippines – Hundreds of foreign migrant workers are reportedly being made to work in cryptocurrency scam operations based in a condominium complex in Parañaque, Senator Risa Hontiveros revealed in a Senate hearing on Wednesday, April 19.
In November 2022, Hontiveros began exposing operations that trafficked Filipino migrant workers to work in crypto scams in other Southeast Asian countries. Recently, her office learned that the same type of trafficking may be happening to migrant workers of other nationalities, who are reportedly brought to live and work in Bayport West NAIA Garden Residences, a seven-tower condominium complex just minutes away from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
An Indonesian witness known only as “Ridwan” virtually testified at the Senate, reading an affidavit he executed before the Philippine embassy in Jakarta.
According to Ridwan, around the end of February, he came across a digital marketing job posting on Facebook. When he reached out to the Facebook user who posted it, he was instructed to contact a Telegram account. There, he spoke to a recruiter he believed was Indonesian.
Ridwan met the two other Indonesians traveling with him for the first time on March 7, the day of their departure. When they were at the Jakarta airport, the recruiter asked them to take a selfie and send it to him.
“We arrived [at the] Ninoy Aquino International Airport at 5:45 pm. To my surprise, there was an employee waiting for us right after we went out of the tube and into the airport,” said Ridwan.
The “employee,” described to be wearing navy blue pants, a white shirt, and an apple green vest, had on his mobile phone a copy of the photo that the group sent to their recruiter, Ridwan said.
After the man confirmed the group was the one in the photo, Ridwan said the man led the group to the Bureau of Quarantine, and then to the immigration counter. Ridwan claimed that the immigration officer did not ask any questions before stamping their passports.
After retrieving their luggage, Ridwan’s group got into a van with a driver who allegedly had their photo as well. They were brought to the Bayport West NAIA Garden Residences.
Once he got there, people whom Ridwan believed to be recruiters and employees made him sign a contract that they allegedly did not allow him to read through first. Feeling pressured and afraid, Ridwan signed it.
Ridwan said he saw 100 to 200 Indonesians in the area, but noticed people of other nationalities.
In Ridwan’s office space, he saw other Indonesians, and they had Black and Chinese supervisors. They were trained to create social media accounts with stolen photos to create young women characters who were young, smart, and successful. These fake accounts would be used to scam people on Tinder, Facebook, and Instagram.
“After our target [falls] in love with us, we make them invest in cryptocurrency…. When we do not get victims, we will get punishment. My impression is that many employees have their salary withheld from them. Our salaries were supposed to be P80,000 a month, but the employee who [was] there before me kept begging me for instant noodles and even cigarettes,” he said.
Ridwan said he knew about “secret areas” where employees were punished and electrocuted.
Days later, Ridwan decided to leave. He told his supervisor that he was sick and could no longer work. The supervisor said that he needed to pay back what the company spent for him, and so Ridwan paid P100,000 to get out.
Ridwan was able to leave the Philippines on March 16. His affidavit has since been turned over to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
According to Hontiveros, other trafficked victims in the scam hubs were nationals of Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and countries in Africa and South Asia.
“Bakit nga ba ‘yung mga Pilipinong turista na palabas, hinihingan ng yearbook, tapos sa mga papasok na dayuhan like Ridwan and his companions, wala man lang tanong-tanong?” said Hontiveros. (How come departing Filipino tourists are asked for yearbooks, while inbound foreigners like Ridwan and his companions don’t have to answer any questions?)
The senator referenced to an incident of a Filipina traveler being subjected to a lengthy immigration interview that caused her to miss her flight. The Bureau of Immigration (BI) apologized over the incident but highlighted the need to fight human trafficking. (READ: OFW group slams ‘arbitrary’ immigration restrictions on departing Filipinos)
Senator Raffy Tulfo asked Philippine authorities in the airport for closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage of the day Ridwan’s group arrived in the country. Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) chief Cesar Chiong said it was no longer available since the retention period of the footage in the airport is just 30 days.
Tulfo pressed the MIAA and the BI to make an emergency procurement to upgrade the capacity of the CCTV cameras to better monitor possible instances of human trafficking.
Meanwhile, Jan Moses Hernandez, the immigration officer who stamped Ridwan’s passport in Manila, contradicted Ridwan by saying he asked about their purpose for travel and looked for their return tickets, which is standard operating procedure.
“Who’s lying?” Tulfo asked. The senator asked if Hernandez was willing to undergo a lie detector test, to which the immigration officer consented.
Ridwan said he observed perhaps 1,000 people working in the condominium complex. Justice Undersecretary Nicholas Ty, who is in charge of the Philippines’ Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, admitted lapses in monitoring the situation.
“One thousand foreigners in one particular building wasn’t even detected in your radar? … And for what purpose?” said Tulfo in a mix of English and Filipino.
“Nasa radar na namin ngayon (It’s on our radar now),” Ty answered, but Tulfo said that this was after the fact, and that they should have been more proactive.
“Red flag talaga…. Kasi kung isang libong dayuhan sa iisang building, posibleng national security threat ito,” said Hontiveros. (This is really a red flag…. Because if there are 1,000 foreigners in one building, this is possibly a national security threat.)
Tulfo asked Ty which agency should be responsible for monitoring a situation such as this, and Ty chose to hold accountability for it. “Nagkulang po kami, sir (There were lapses on our part, sir),” Ty said.
NBI anti-human trafficking chief Catherine Nolasco said that their agents visited the Bayport condominium to initially observe “outside.” The agents confirmed that “many” foreigners were going in and out of the building.
“I call on the NBI and the PNP (Philippine National Police) to act on this at once. There is no time to waste. Every day, foreigners may effortlessly get into the country with the aid of unscrupulous airport or immigration officials. This is a serious national security concern that we must urgently address,” said Hontiveros.
In February 2020, Hontiveros exposed the pastillas scam, where Philippine immigration officials received bribes to allow the seamless entry of Chinese employees of Philippine offshore gaming operators into the country. Immigration officials were among the 43 that the Office of the Ombudsman in June 2022 charged with graft in relation to the scam. – Rappler.com
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