An overseas Filipino worker (OFW) trafficked to war-torn Syria in 2017 tearfully appealed to the Philippine government to stop the illegal operations between recruitment agencies and corrupt immigration officials.
During a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, March 23, OFW Diana* (not her real name) recalled her gut-wrenching ordeal, which included how she was forced to abort her baby upon arriving at Syria.
The same hearing revealed that the alleged masterminds of the now-infamous “pastillas” bribery scheme in the Bureau of Immigration (BI) were also involved in trafficking OFWs to Syria.
“Kaya ako po ay buong puso na humaharap sa Senate hearing na ito para matigil na ang pagpapadala ng mga Pilipino sa Syria ng mga illegal recruiter, ang corruption sa Bureau of Immigration, at higit sa lahat ang pambibiktima at pang-aabuso sa amin na mga kapit sa patalim lang,” said Diana before senators and government officials.
(That’s why I am facing this Senate hearing to help stop the trafficking of Filipinos to Syria by illegal recruiters, the corruption in the Bureau of Immigration, and the abuse of people like me who are desperate to survive.)
At least 4 OFWs who have spoken to the staff of panel chair and Senator Risa Hontiveros shared similar stories: They were made to believe they would be working in the United Arab Emirates, only to be sold later to employers in Syria, where they were underpaid and abused.
Hontiveros is chair of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality.
The OFWs said those involved in the scheme allegedly earned P50,000 by trafficking them.
Diana, who hailed from the Dinagat Islands, held back tears as she narrated how she fell victim to an illegal recruiter who sold her to an employer in Syria.
Diana said her recruiter allegedly paid a "contact in immigration" to facilitate her trafficking into Syria.
She was then flown into Malaysia, where Diana suspected she was already pregnant. It was unclear in her testimony, however, who fathered her child.
Diana said she was held in Malaysia for about two to 3 weeks before she was sent to Syria, where she confirmed that she was indeed pregnant.
She wanted to keep the child and go back home, but her recruiters forced her to abort her baby. They even watched over Diana to make sure she took the abortifacients they had given her.
“Siguro umuwi na ko na malamig na bangkay kung lumaban ako sa kanila (Maybe I would have returned home a cold cadaver had I opposed them),” Diana told the Senate panel when asked by Hontiveros what would have happened had she refused the abortion.
Diana then said was sold to her employer in Syria, who paid her only $200 a month even if her contract stipulated a salary of $400. She was supposed to work for just 2 years, but her employment extended to 3 years.
Diana said she tried to seek help from the Philippine Embassy in Syria, but they allegedly refused to help her. An embassy official supposedly even laughed at her on the day she was able to sneak out of her employer’s home.
“Nakapunta ako ng embassy kasi expired na ang passport ko, at nakita ko doon ang nakakausap ko sa phone na tauhan ng embassy na hinihingian ko ng tulong. Nagawa pa niya ako na pagtawanan,” said Diana, her voice cracking.
(I was able to go to the embassy because my passport was expired, and I saw there the embassy official from whom I was asking help. That official even laughed at me.)
Diana was able to fly back to the Philippines in November 2020 only by borrowing money from a friend.
“Sobrang hirap ang pinagdaanan ko doon sa loob ng Syria. Nasabi ko sa sarili ko na ayoko na talaga doon, kaya ako ang gumawa ng paraan para makauwi ako,” said Diana.
(I endured so much inside Syria. I told myself that I really don't want to be there anymore, so I had to figure out a way so I could ho home.)
The Department of Foreign Affairs has started repatriating several other women from Syria after being trafficked there as well.
Hontiveros condemned the “modern slavery” of Filipinos and vowed to crack down on those responsible in the trafficking of OFWs, including BI officials.
“This is an outright violation of the Anti Trafficking in Persons Act. The names found to be involved in this crime will be sentenced to life imprisonment,” said the senator.