Philippines: Rescuing children from the sex trade


Fr Shay Cullen

Fr Shay Cullen

I drove from Olongapo City to Subic town recently and pointed to the journalist the row of shuttered, dilapidated and closed-down sex bars that lined the road at Calapandayan, Subic. It is evidence of the success of an anti-trafficking operation conducted by the Preda Foundation social workers with the help of the Philippine police and an agent of the US Homeland Security where as many as 15 young girls were rescued from the horrible life of forced prostitution.

Some younger minors, so traumatized after being trapped and abused for over a year in this kind of sex slavery, were in need of therapy, support compassion and friendship and hope for a better life. They came to the Preda Home for Girls and have made a recovery and are empowered to testify.

Others had been newly recruited for jobs as food servers in the hotels at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone but were forced into prostitution in a sex hotel. They were freed and were brought to the homes in a town south of Manila by the government social workers. They were later intimidated by the sex mafia and were too scared to testify. The bar operators walked free except one US national who is on trial.

That is the common course for the victims. They are poor, helpless and need strong support, witness protection and encouragement to find justice but sadly the government agencies do not provide these services effectively.

The long term success of that operation is that we had volunteer retired federal police from Australia who went undercover as sex tourists and infiltrated the sex bars and clubs. (see www.preda.org links to YouTube 'Children of the Sex Trade' and 'The Raid' of ABC New York)

These secret surveillances are hopefully still ongoing around the Philippines and are popular with retired police and have many sex tourists and bar operators worried today because they don't know if the sex tourist downing a cold beer and chatting beside them is a fellow exploiter of young girls or a retired police officer on a undercover mission for the Philippine police.

These retired officers are good men determined to save children and working to end sex trafficking and slavery. The evidence could put the bar operator and owner in a filthy jail cell where he could die of malnutrition or disease. These kinds of operations are very necessary to curb the growing abuse of younger teenagers disguised as adults with fake documents.

It's a crime against humanity, according to Pope Francis, who has spoken and has acted to bring together police and church leaders to find a more effective response to this crime that destroys young lives. The Santa Marta Group of senior police officers, diplomats and church leaders brings together the energy and resources worldwide to combat this evil trade in human beings. It was first held in Vatican City in the Santa Marta guest house where Pope Francis lives from which the group got its name. Last week, they had their annual meeting in New York. They need to work faster.

As many as 21 million people are in slavery in the world today in its various forms. Many are children under 18 year of age who are sex slaves without rights or freedom. They are held in the sex bars, clubs, houses and hotels where prostitution is rampant. Most young girls are without identity, freedom of choice and are usually lured into debt and scared to escape.

Their families may have taken advance payment on the child's so-called "salary" and are threatened if the minor runs away from the sex bar, the pimp or the human trafficker. It is a false argument to claim the girls are working to support their families back in the province. Some do but most apparently don't. Poverty and inequality is at the heart of the problem.

Their documents showing them as adults are fake or those of an elder sister. Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines but this is ignored. Children as young as 14 are offered for sex on the street and sex bars.

Corrupt officials are getting payments from the human traffickers and club owners. So outside police are needed. That's why I promote the formation of a multi-national police force with jurisdiction wherever they are assigned to investigate traffickers using trained undercover officers.

Local mayors give operating permits to the sex bars. Such government approval is at the heart of the crime. In the Philippines alone, there is an estimated 100,000 minors trafficked and sexually exploited every year. The worldwide business is worth US $ 110 billion, according to the UK's Anti-Slavery Independent Commissioner Kevin Hylan, a dedicated campaigner.

What is needed is action on the ground to rescue, protect, heal and help them recover and testify and bring the criminals to justice. That is not there sufficiently. That's why we need a special human trafficking court in each region on which two international retired judges will sit trying the child abusers and human trafficking suspects. A new law for this can be passed if there is commitment.

But one thing is certain: this crime is the shame of humanity and the blight of each nation. To fail to act against it is to condone it and silence about abuse is the greater crime.

For more information or to support the work of the Preda Foundation see: www.preda.org

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