MANILA, Philippines — Corrupt immigration officers have been collecting at least P50,000 from human traffickers for each Filipino woman they allow to leave the country to be sold off as “modern-day slaves” in war-torn Syria, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said on Tuesday.
When the women arrive in the Middle Eastern country, they are each “purchased” by various clients for $1,000 up to $9,000, according to three victims who spoke last week through surreptitious Facebook calls from the homes of their employers. All three were given aliases by the senator’s office for their safety.
According to Hontiveros, the racket, which victimizes Filipinos who are sent to dangerous countries as servants or prostitutes, is another iteration of the money-making schemes by corrupt immigration officers, including the “pastillas scam” uncovered by her committee last year.
At an online press briefing, the Senate women and children panel chair presented an audio recording of an account by one of the women who was trafficked to Syria by an unscrupulous labor recruiter who paid off some immigration officers.
The woman, identified by her alias, Alice, detailed her ordeal in Damascus in the online call with the senator’s staff. She spoke in a hushed tone under a blanket to muffle her voice so that people outside her quarters would not hear her.
She said she was promised a job as a maid in Dubai for $400 a month only to find herself in the Syrian capital working for a relative of a top government official for only half of that amount. She also said she was physically abused by her employer.
Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente said his office supported the senator’s investigation and would fully cooperate with it “as we share a common goal of eliminating corruption in the Bureau [of Immigration].”
“[The bureau] is committed in our duty as the last line of defense in protecting our kababayan from syndicates committing illegal recruitment and human trafficking,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Narrating her experience, Alice said her recruiter, whom she identified as Ana, had paid immigration officers before her departure in 2018.
She said she and the other women were accompanied by immigration officers at Ninoy Aquino International Airport from the time they lined up for inspection until they boarded their planes.
“What I know is P50,000 was paid for each one of us,” she said. “Someone met us at the gate, then another person at line No. 1 … until we reached the plane, [then] another person accompanied us,” she recalled.
Hontiveros called the payoff “outbound pastillas.”
Alice said she remembered that the person manning Counter 1 to which she was directed was a female immigration officer.
The Syrian employer “bought me” for $1,000, she said.
She was physically abused, especially during her first five months on the job. She received a particularly violent reaction when “they got mad” at her for asking for permission to return home to the Philippines.
“They grabbed me, kicked me, slapped me, dragged me by the hair and so on,” said Alice, who spoke in Filipino.
Another woman, Belen, told Hontiveros’ staff that she was sold for $9,000 in 2019.
Alice, Belen and Carol, who left the country also in 2019, are willing to testify in the Senate inquiry once they are repatriated, Hontiveros said.
She said her office would work with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to intercede on the women’s behalf and, if necessary, to rescue them from their employers.
Locsin vows cooperation
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Tuesday praised Hontiveros and said he would “make sure” the chargé d’affaires (CDA) of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, Vida Soraya Verzosa, would participate in the hearings.
“Great job, Risa. We need that. We cannot afford to relax or let any abuse pass because it is too much trouble to fix,” Locsin said in a Twitter post. “Absolutely, thank you, Risa. DFA will connect Senate to CDA in Damascus.”
Locsin described Verzosa as a “no-nonsense ballbuster.”
Hontiveros said she would also request the immigration bureau to furnish the names of the immigration officers who stamped the women’s passports as this was a violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.
“There’s a huge penalty for this and it is nonbailable. This is a case of large-scale trafficking, and trafficking in syndicate. The punishment here is life imprisonment,” she added.
—WITH A REPORT FROM TINA G. SANTOS
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