OFW says immigration officers involved in trafficking her to Syria

Senator Risa Hontiveros revealed Tuesday, March 16, the testimony of a woman reported to be an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) who alleged that employees of the Bureau of Immigration were involved in trafficking her to Syria.

The OFW said those involved in the scheme earned P50,000 from her sale.

Alice, not her real name, told Hontiveros’ office in a video call on Sunday, March 14, that she had experienced abuse, was underpaid, and worked extended hours for the past two years in Damascus, Syria.

When Alice was still in the Philippines, she said her agent met with Philippine immigration officers in Luneta Park and Robinsons Manila to settle fees.

Then, in the airport, Alice said she was able to swing past immigration counters with the aid of BI officers. Several officers escorted her from the gate, to “counter number 1,” and to the airplane. Her recruiter “Ana” paid immigration P50,000 to let her through.

Alice understood that she would work in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She only found out in a layover in Malaysia that she would be going to Damascus. After being held for 12 days in Malaysia, an employer in Syria bought her for $1,000, and she was on her way.

Five months ko dito nakaranas ako ng pananakit kasi nagpaalam ako na uuwi ako kaya nagalit sila, sinaktan ako saka yung mga pangalawa, [noong] 2020, sinaktan ulit ako dahil nabasa nila mga email ko, kinuha nila, kasi tumatawag embassy sa kanila na humihingi ako ng tulong,” said Alice.

(In my first 5 months here, I experienced abuse because I told my employers I would go home, so they got angry and hurt me. Then the second time in 2020, they hurt me again because they got hold of my emails and read them, because the Philippine embassy called them up, saying I was asking for help.)

Her promised $400 salary a month turned out to only be $200. In her long working hours of 10 am to 3 am, Alice said she was molested, kicked, slapped, and dragged by bodyguards of her employer, whom Alice said was a relative of the Syrian president. 

Mukhang kasabwat na naman ang mga opisyal ng BI sa ilegal na kalakal. Lahat nalang ng puwedeng pagperahan sa airport, mukhang pinasok na ng mga korap na BI officers. Ilang mutation ng pastillas scam pa ang hindi natin alam?” Hontiveros said.

(It looks like the BI officials are involved yet again in illegal trade. Corrupt BI officers seem to have taken advantage of all the ways of earning kickbacks at the airport. How many mutations of the pastillas scam do we still not know?)

Hontiveros said she would officially request the BI to furnish the names of immigration officers who stamped Alice’s passport, warning that this case violated the country’s anti-trafficking in persons law. Hontiveros also considered setting a deadline on BI Commissioner Jaime Morente to crack down on abuses in the bureau.

'Harshest penalties' for those involved

In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, the BI expressed full support for the Senate investigation to be led by Hontiveros. Morente said the agency will implement the "harshest penalties" against any erring personnel.

"As proven in the past, we will not hesitate to put to justice any immigration personnel implicated in trafficking schemes," said Morente.

The BI said it has installed measures to prevent illegal activities among its employees, including "internal checks and balances." According to Morente, the agency deferred the departures of around 50,000 Filipinos from 2019 to 2020 over suspected human trafficking.

Morente said the agency was committed in its duty as "the last line of defense in protecting" Filipinos from illegal recruiters and human traffickers. He said the BI will fully cooperate in the Senate probe.

The Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality is set to make recommendations on the OFWs’ reports before the second regular session is suspended on March 27. Two other women apart from Alice made similar testimonies.

Inbound, outbound corruption

Reports of corruption in the immigration bureau are not new.

In February 2020, Hontiveros confronted BI officials for alleged involvement in a “pastillas scam,” where immigration officials accepted thousands of pesos in bribes for the easy entry of Chinese Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) workers into the country.

Back then, the pastillas bribe fee was known to be P10,000, which together with abuses in the visa-upon-arrival (VUA) system added up to the estimated P40 billion amassed by alleged masterminds.

The National Bureau of Investigation sued 86 officials including accused mastermind Marc Red Mariñas for graft in November 2020.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has repatriated several women from Syria after being trafficked there as well. Similar to Alice’s story, they understood they would be working in the UAE, but were instead sent to Syria. – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.

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