Philippines Keeps Best US Human Trafficking Rating Despite Raids

July 1, 2024
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The US State Department has retained the Philippines’ top rating for eliminating human trafficking despite a surge in online gambling linked operations that exploited and enslaved thousands of local and foreign workers.
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The US State Department has retained the Philippines’ top rating for eliminating human trafficking despite a surge in online gambling linked operations that exploited and enslaved thousands of local and foreign workers.

The State Department’s 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report last week named the Philippines as a “Tier 1” jurisdiction, denoting a government that “fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”.

The ranking, shared by only 33 nations, places the Philippines above “Tier 2” (below minimum standards) European nations such as Switzerland, Portugal, Norway and Ireland.

“The government continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts during the reporting period; therefore, the Philippines remained on Tier 1,” the report said.

“These efforts included investigating and prosecuting more alleged traffickers, finalising and adopting Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking SOPs [standard operating procedures] on the identification and monitoring of trafficking-related corruption cases, promulgating implementing rules and regulations for its amended anti-trafficking law, and sentencing nearly all traffickers to significant prison terms.”

At the same time, the report found that Manila “did not consistently screen for trafficking individuals involved in online scam operations; therefore, authorities likely penalised and deported some victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked.”

The report added that the government “identified fewer victims and courts convicted slightly fewer traffickers”, while “corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year”.

Numerous police raids on compounds over the last few years have rescued thousands of trapped workers and deported almost all of those who were foreign nationals, confirming that violent cyber-scamming business models have crossed from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar into the Philippines, mostly with Chinese nationals in charge.

The raids have heaped pressure on the government’s law and order record, particularly after several compounds were found to be housing foreign-facing online gambling operators (POGOs) currently or formerly registered by gambling regulator PAGCOR.

Raids on properties in March and June this year and May last year have fuelled attacks on PAGCOR’s capability to regulate the sector, as well as bills in both houses of the Philippine Congress that propose a complete ban on online gambling operations.

The US State Department report found gaps in the outcomes of police investigations into such raids, including a lack of updates and accountability for officials allegedly complicit in human trafficking, but noted that the government greatly increased prosecutorial resources for anti-trafficking task forces.

However, the report also criticised chronic corruption among officials and the treatment of victims of trafficking, noting that the government “likely inappropriately detained, penalised, and deported some trafficking victims solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked”.

It said the government likely deported victims lacking identification, and undercounted the number of foreign nationals likely subjected to detention, torture, sexual violence and trafficking between POGOs.

Mystery Mayor Unmasked

Meanwhile, a local mayor who formerly co-owned the property raided in June, and who claimed to have been born and raised in the Philippines, has been identified as a likely illegal Chinese immigrant after a fingerprint match was reported by the National Bureau of Investigation.

Alice Guo, the suspended mayor of the Tarlac Province town of Bamban, has the same fingerprints as a Chinese national who entered the Philippines as a student under the name Guo Huaping, the bureau said.

Anti-gambling Senator Risa Hontiveros on Thursday (June 27) accused Guo of being a “fake Filipino” and said she should be removed from office, adding that “she is a Chinese national masquerading as [a] Philippine citizen to facilitate crimes being committed by POGOs”.

Through her ownership of the Bamban property, Guo is also an associate of two Chinese nationals recently jailed in Singapore over money laundering offences.

PAGCOR chairman and CEO Alejandro Tengco said on Saturday that the regulator is also set to name a former Cabinet official who attempted to obtain gambling licences for a number of POGO operations that were later raided.

“What we need to question, in the first place, was how [almost 300 POGO licensees who were deregistered in 2023] were able to secure their licensees in the past because clearly, during our cleansing process, we found most of them to be ineligible and outright suspicious,” he said.

“We are also ready to reveal the roles of other controversial individuals behind these criminal POGO enterprises.”

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