Amid lockdowns, human traffickers move to digital

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NOT even the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic could stop human traffickers, who merely moved their illegal operations from the physical to the digital landscape en masse.

This was the observation of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and other members of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (Iacat) in an online forum on Thursday for the celebration of the World Day Against Trafficking organized by the Blas F. Ople Policy Center.

In his presentation, POEA administrator Bernard P. Olalia said they noted a spike in the number of online scammers during the pandemic.

“There are so many [recruitment scams], which appeared on social media; that is why our AIR [Anti-illegal recruitment branch] continues to monitor [online] advertisements,” Olalia said.

He said AIR usually scrutinizes ads from travel agencies and language training centers, which are usually used by human traffickers to recruit their victims.

Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Villar said they anticipated the trend after the Covid-19 crisis displaced many local and overseas workers.

“[The] vulnerable population has now become even more exposed to exploitation and to abuse as they search for alternative means of livelihood which was taken away from them by the effects of the pandemic,” Villar said.

Online presence

In response to this trend, Olalia said POEA, particularly AIR, strengthened its presence online. He also said POEA released several advisories warning aspiring overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) about bogus job orders, unlicensed recruiters and potential identity theft.

They also launched their online legal counseling via e-mail or Facebook Messenger, as well as phone patch to provide aid for Covid-affected OFWs.

Olalia said they were able to assist 606 clients through these means and another 450 who opted to visit POEA’s website to also get the same service.

The common queries that clients have for POEA’s legal assistance department include what will happen to their employment contract during the pandemic; how to file charges against their employers; their rights if their employment is terminated; and their rights when being repatriated.

DOLE earlier estimated about 400,000 OFWs either lost their jobs or suffered shorter work hours because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Decrease in traditional cases

While POEA got increasing online clients, Olalia noted a decline in the number of illegal recruitment victims who sought their assistance by going to their offices this year. They counted only 12 from January to June.

This was significantly lower compared to the 103 in 2018, and 149 in 2019.

“The data is still not clear, why it [number of illegal recruitment victims] went down. Probably this is because of the lockdown caused by the pandemic, so [illegal] recruiters were forced to lie low and get their victims” through other means, Olalia said.

Olalia also pointed to the number of illegal recruitment violations which they filed for the first half of the year—only at 196, lower than the 885 cases in 2018 and the 770 cases in 2019.

Concerted effort

With the continued threat of human traffickers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Villar said the Iacat recently launched the Integrated Case Management System (ICMS), which allows its members to keep track of active and inactive illegal recruitment and human-trafficking agencies.

The system also allows Iacat members to generate data and analyze emerging trends for OFW tip cases.

She hoped the new system will allow the country to keep its prestigious Tier 1 classification in the annual United States State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) index in the last five years.

“Ongoing consequences of the pandemic are likely to put more people at risk of being victims and subjected to specific vulnerabilities due to the circumstances surrounding them,” Villar said.

“This therefore calls for a concerted action to this challenging situation. And the Iacat and all of its member agencies together with the law-enforcement agencies have stepped up their efforts and responded strongly,” she added.

Image credits: AP

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