IACAT intensifies anti-trafficking response online during COVID-19

17 December 2020

On 17 December 2020, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) held the 6th Manila International Dialogue on Human Trafficking (The Manila Dialogue) with the theme, “Modern Day Slavery During COVID-19: Challenges, Priorities and Perspectives”. The event was broadcasted live through the IACAT Facebook Page.

The Manila Dialogue is a platform for continuing conversations on trafficking in persons (TIP) participated in by various local and international organizations, government agencies, and foreign missions. The core of the Manila Dialogue is the product of discussions of three Technical Working Groups (TWGs), namely: (1) TWG on Household Service Workers and Tourist Workers; (2) TWG on Online Child Exploitation (OSEC); and (3) TWG on Seafarers and Fisherfolk.

This year the Manila Dialogue highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Government’s response to trafficking in persons. The TWGs identified how COVID-19 exacerbated TIP, the challenges in addressing TIP during the pandemic, and how these can be addressed.

Discussions during the Dialogue were consistent that there was an increased vulnerability of groups that were already prone to victimization prior to the pandemic. Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar noted how “children who are victims of online abuse, seafarers and fisherfolks, as well as the domestic workers and overseas Filipino workers have all been seriously impacted by the ensuing pandemic.” With the lockdown in place, these vulnerable sectors have experienced “unique challenges [which] were identified and seriously considered by the TWGs in their policy discussions in order to generate responsive and realistic solutions.”

Ambassador Saskia de Lang of the Kingdom of the Netherlands said that “Traffickers and criminals see the global covid-19 pandemic as a business opportunity.” Facilitators of OSEC took advantage of the higher demand from customers of child sexual exploitation material during the lockdown. Ellene Sana, Executive Director, Center for Migrant Advocacy noted  that the pandemic caused involuntary servitude on the part of seafarers in the high seas because of the delay in the deployment of substitute seafarers. Philippine Overseas Employment Agency Administrator Bernard P. Olalia, also said that illegal recruiters took advantage of the economic need of those who are unemployed due to the pandemic.

Several challenges were also identified. PBGen Alessandro G. Abella, Chief Women and Children Protection Center of the PNP said that lessened workforce and travel restrictions affected TIP law enforcement operations. DSWD Program Management Bureau Director Rosalie Dagulo also observed that government resources were focused on COVID-19 response.

As the perpetrators are concentrating their criminal activities online, the response should likewise adapt to the changes. “We also have to make sure that digital technology is becoming an integrated part of our strategy as well, both at the policy level and during the operations,” said Herman Bolhaar, the Kingdom of Netherlands independent Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings.

Despite these challenges the government was able to intensify its efforts, protect the vulnerable and prosecute offenders. Since the means to commit trafficking migrated online, the response should also involve online efforts. Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra stated that “technology can facilitate the effective administration of justice” and that “the criminal justice response to trafficking has slowly adapted and accommodated new possibilities of carrying out its mandate.” He cited the case of the first virtual promulgation of the conviction of the notorious American pedophile, David Timothy Deakin during the height of the pandemic last May 2020. The judgment was handed down by Judge Irineo Pangilinan Jr. of the Angeles City Regional Trial Court Branch 58 through online proceedings. Another recent conviction for large scale trafficking for prostitution was promulgated via videconferencing in Cebu. Furthermore, Sec. Guevarra pointed out that “as part of the DOJ’s efforts to respond to the current situation, guidelines for e-inquest have also been issued, providing for the virtual conduct of inquest proceedings using online platforms and without requiring the physical presence of parties.”

The 6th Manila Dialogue has clearly shown that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic the  government remained relentless in its fight to end human trafficking. This year’s Manila Dialogue “is a reflection of the work undertaken in the past month amidst a truly challenging milieu and the value of strong international cooperation cannot be overemphasized. Indeed to break the chains that shackle victims of human trafficking, we must forge new bonds between nations rooted in a desire to build a world free from modern day slavery,” said Usec. Aglipay-Villar.

All the presentations, speeches and policy discussions, as well as other materials that may contribute to a better understanding of the Manila Dialogue may be found at an official website of The Manila International Dialogue that was launched during the 6th Manila International Dialogue. You may access the Manila Dialogue website at http://www.iacat.gov.ph.

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