Young Filipino women trafficked to Syria

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 4) — Three Filipino women from Mindanao told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that they were trafficked to Syria when they were just minors.

The youngest is Lenlen, not her real name. She said she left the Philippines in 2018 when she was just 14 years old after being recruited in her hometown of Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.

She escaped her employers’ home in December 2019 because they always hurt her and refused to give her food.

Sinasampal po, pinapalo, kinukurot, tinatampal ng pinanglilinis namin… yung mop (I was slapped, beaten, pinched, hit with a mop),” Lenlen recounted in a video interview presented by Senator Risa Hontiveros during the joint legislative inquiry of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, which Hontiveros chairs; and the panel on labor, employment and human resource development.

Lenlen returned to the Philippines in January 2020. She is now 16 years old.

Aside from her, alias Omaimai and Aleah also recalled being illegally flown to Syria when they were just 16 in 2008. Omaimai is from Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, while Aleah is from Sultan sa Barongis, Maguindanao.

They have the same harrowing experiences. Recruiters lured them to working abroad without disclosing their destination would be war-torn Syria.

Hontiveros said the girls' passports and travel documents were fabricated to indicate they were a decade older so they can slip past immigration authorities.

Years of abuse followed in the hands of their employers.

Aleah stayed with an employer the longest – 11 years. She said her employer treated her well at first but later beat her up and withheld her salary.

Omaimai went from one household to another, also suffering physical abuses.

'Pastillas' scam

Alex Chiong, the immigration officer who exposed the “pastillas” scheme, said young Muslim women in the rural areas of Mindanao are being targeted by human traffickers.

One of the reasons could be their tradition of wearing a hijab to cover their faces, making it more difficult for authorities to tell they are minors, he said.

Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente said personnel should go beyond primary inspection or checking of travel documents when they suspect that the passengers are younger than they claim to be.

Female officers must conduct a secondary inspection which involves asking the passengers to remove their cloak, he said.

Chiong revealed that these inspection procedures are deliberately skipped when passengers are part of a list under the “pastillas” scheme.

“Dahil sa outbound pastillas, pag nakalista ang pasahero sa Viber group, hindi na talaga uusisain ng officer yun, tatatakan na lang po yun,” Chiong said. “Express lane na po ‘yan.”

[Translation: Because of outbound pastillas, when a passenger is listed in the Viber group, the officer will no longer scrutinize but just stamp the passports. That’s an express lane already.]

Chiong added that even if some frontline immigration personnel wanted to defy the list, they are afraid to go against their superiors’ orders.

Morente said at least five officers have been relieved from their posts, including the Immigration Officer 2 who signed Lenlen’s exit documents in 2018.

A fact-finding team has recommended that the Department of Justice file grave misconduct charges against four immigration officers identified in a previous hearing as part of the alleged syndicate working in cahoots with illegal recruiters.

READ: Recruiters allegedly pay ₱50K to BI personnel to smuggle Filipina workers into Syria

Morente said a total of 203 passengers suspected to be minors were intercepted in 2018 and 2019 based on latest data available. He explained the data include those 22 years old and below, since government policies set the minimum age of deployment of domestic helpers at 23.

Mindanao's illegal recruitment problem

In Mindanao, recruiters would take advantage of victims' lack of birth certificates and file for late registration to exploit the documents, according to Iric Arribas, executive director of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs.

Michelle Agata of the Bangsamoro region's Ministry of Social Services and Development noted that recruiters would target young relatives who would be unwilling to file complaints against them.

Chargé d’ affaires Vida Soraya Verzosa of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus said victims include members of indigenous groups and vulnerable sectors. She called for a stronger anti-trafficking strategy.

“For children, prevention includes not allowing them to enter Syria in the first place,” she said.

Meanwhile, Verzosa assured that the DFA will investigate Lenlen’s complaint that after being rescued in 2019, a staff member at the Philippine Embassy shelter in Damascus made sexual comments on her.