Slaves in a modern world

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

If you thought slavery, which Britain abolished over 180 years ago, was restricted to a dismal passage of inhuman history, then think again. People are being trafficked and used as slaves today. Exploiters and victims are Filipinos and foreign. It is a global issue.

I know of a Manila based aunt who brought her niece from the province to go to college. Within weeks, the student was asked to help with the childcare needs of her cousins and household chores. Soon, support for studying stopped and in return for food and lodgings, the aunt expected her to become an unpaid servant. Twenty years later, despite more broken promises from so-called friends, she finally bought her freedom with a paid job.

I spoke to a young girl rescued from a cybersex den. Her mother treated her as a commodity. For P150 she was taken to private houses or back rooms of internet cafes to perform acts for foreign viewers on line. In a harrowing narrative, she said that her cohort of kids continued to act out such scenes as play in their free time. The cybersex ring was broken with UK Police collaboration with the PNP. The offenders are still out on bail.

Some say that the exploitation of Filipino children is carried out by foreigners only. The majority of the 100,000 child prostitutes in the country are abused by Filipinos and a pool of 1.5 million street children is a vast source for exploitation.

Through the Bureau of Immigration, we deported an infamous paedophile who is now serving a long sentence in the UK. What was truly shocking was the fact that young boys were supplied for exploitation by their teachers. Traffickers operate under the guise of being respectable professionals.

Even in relatively well off families, someone sows the seed of migration in restless minds. They see the lifestyle of neighbors living on the bounty of remittances and the booty of balikbayan boxes. If no one is able to sponsor a legitimate route to the promised land, the proposition from a recruiter becomes compelling. Some traffickers have impressive offices. Many use social media and email to lure victims.

A significant number are forced into labor and sexual exploitation. Entertainment clubs and massage parlors are obvious risks. But even in seemingly legitimate work, traffickers provide loans which lead to bondage. This happens not just in domestic service, hospitality or nursing. Agriculture, shipping, fishing and construction work are also potential traps. Illegal recruiters arrange student, intern or tourist visas to avoid restrictions. The threat of deportation is used to drive people into slavery. Employers withhold salaries and passports, remove means of communication and restrain people in inhumane living conditions. Traffickers collude with corrupt officials and law enforcement agents to close off escape routes.

The UK has declared a new commitment to attack modern slavery as a global priority. We will act through the United Nations and other international institutions. We acknowledge the problems caused by extreme poverty. Women and children from indigenous families, from remote areas and in conflict zones are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Our pledge to maintain development assistance at 0.7% of our Gross National Income has a particular emphasis on support for women. We have law enforcement officers in regions where victims are sourced. Our National Crime Agency has specific programs in ASEAN to tackle exploitation of children online. I serve as a Trustee of the Child Protection Network, which channels charitable funds to help abused Filipino children. The goal is to have a facility located in every General Hospital in the Philippines.

We have immigration teams who monitor transit points and identify processes and patterns used by criminals. I hope that the 89% of successful Filipino tourist visa applicants will understand why Britain has robust screening and information requirements. Each refusal narrows the opportunity for a man, woman and child to become a slave.

The institutions that deal with the welfare of overseas workers will need to do an even better job. I welcome the proposal of President Duterte to create a Department for OFWs. Public servants who aid and abet traffickers should be removed. We need faster trials and more convictions. The Bureau of Immigration is a vital partner to prevent child sex tourism. Our respective social welfare experts have much to learn from each other. Teachers who have experienced our training programs are better equipped to identify the early signs of child exploitation.

Human trafficking is a crime initiated within the victim’s community. Every story I have heard, starts with mistreatment within the family. If the purpose of having children is only to buy economic security, then turning them into a saleable commodity becomes easier. Join us in our endeavor to end the inhumanity of modern slavery.

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Asif Ahmad is the Ambassador of the United Kingdom.

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