Stung by US criticisms, Palace vows conviction of human traffickers
- Paolo Romero () - November 11, 2005 - 12:00am
Smarting from criticism by local and foreign agencies that it isn’t working hard enough to stop human trafficking, Malacañang vowed yesterday to make arrests and convictions of human traffickers soon.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said in a statement that arresting and prosecuting human traffickers could not be done immediately because Republic Act 9208, the law criminalizing human trafficking, was only enacted in 2003.

However, Bunye did not say why RA 9208 could not be fully implemented two years after its passage. He was also unavailable for comment as of press time.

"The government’s efforts against human trafficking have never wavered," Bunye said in the statement. "We take note of the country’s current standing in this global drive and we are determined to improve our ranking."

According to Bunye, "it is just a matter of time before we will see further progress in its implementation through more arrests, prosecutions and convictions."

The Palace spokesman issued his statement after United States embassy deputy chief of mission Scott Bellard said Wednesday that, despite the Philippines’ anti-human trafficking law, no suspected traffickers had been prosecuted.

Bellard said the lack of prosecutions is a major factor in the US State Department’s decision to keep the Philippines on Tier 2 of the 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, its watchlist of countries with human trafficking problems.

Under US law, countries with human trafficking are categorized in "tiers." Countries that do not have human trafficking problems are classified as Tier 1 nations, while countries that combat human trafficking are placed in Tier 2. Countries that have human trafficking problems but do not combat the cross-border smuggling of people are placed in Tier 3.

Bellard called on Philippine authorities to aggressively implement the anti-human trafficking law to avoid being downgraded to Tier 3.

The Philippines shares a Tier 2 classification with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belize, Cameroon, China, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Greece, Haiti, India, Mauritius, Mexico, Nicaragua, Niger, Russia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Surinam, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.

US Agency for International Development (USAID) assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East James Kunder raised the matter with President Arroyo during their meeting at Malacañang Monday.

Kunder said the Philippines has a serious human trafficking problem and risks future US development aid to the country if the government does not address the situation decisively.

"You realize that the problems in (human) trafficking are severe here," Kunder told reporters. "The Philippines is both a destination for trafficking of persons and also a source for trafficking of persons and there are problems or both internal problems and regional problems where young Filipinos are induced to go to other countries for illicit purposes."

While the actions taken by the Philippine government to curb human trafficking — such as the passage of RA 9208 — are good, Bellard said, "in order to realize this promise, investigators, prosecutors, social workers and others on the front lines in the battle against (human) trafficking must aggressively pursue prosecutions under the new law and obtain timely convictions for the guilty."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo earlier said the Philippines was very serious about pursuing the country’s removal from Tier 2 on the US watchlist.

The actions the Philippines intends to take include assigning a special court dedicated to providing speedy trials for over 400 illegal recruiters arrested by the Philippine Anti-Illegal Recruitment Task Force (PAIRTF) and ensuring the convictions of persons found guilty of human trafficking.

According to Romulo, the establishment of such courts will show the government’s sincerity in its drive against human trafficking.

The arrests of the suspected illegal recruiters by the PAIRTF also show the sincerity of government efforts to curb human smuggling, Romulo added. — With Pia Lee-Brago

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