The government, through the Department of Migrant Workers, is probing a supposed human trafficking scheme where Chinese companies are allegedly recruiting Filipinos to work in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar for cryptocurrency scams, Secretary Susan Ople said Wednesday.
Disclosure of this alleged venture followed a showing by the office of Sen. Risa Hontiveros during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday of what she called a fake exit stamp, allegedly used by traffickers to bypass Immigration officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
An alleged human trafficking victim said during the hearing of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations, and Gender Equality that escorts facilitating the departure of trafficked individuals at NAIA gave them fake exit stamps to bypass the Bureau of Immigration (BI).
In a related development, the Manila International Airport Authority is conducting its own investigation into the reported human trafficking happening again at the country’s premier gateway.
The move came after Hontiveros revealed a new modus of outbound trafficking of Filipinos into Myanmar, which she said was being carried out by individuals allegedly connected with erring officials of the Bureau of Immigration and NAIA.
Hontiveros, who did not hide her dismay over the issue, presented an individual under the byname “Paulo” who thought he had been recruited to work as a customer service representative in Thailand but found out he was going to be sent to work as a scammer in Myanmar.
Senator Raffy Tulfo then said the Manila International Airport Authority should be the first one to be questioned, as the ID pass provided to Paulo was issued by the agency.
Hontiveros said MIAA’s manager was invited but was not able to attend the hearing due to COVID-19.
Tulfo quickly interjected that this shows the MIAA is “guilty.”
“Guilty. As simple as that. Put it on record sinabihan ko silang guilty (I told them they are guilty),” Tulfo said.
MIAA general manager Cesar Chiong also tapped his men to investigate the alleged fake airport passes “to aid in human trafficking attempts.”
Ople said an information campaign targeting Filipinos seeking to work abroad was necessary to help protect them from groups that would recruit them to work as scammers.
In a TV interview, Ople said that aside from Myanmar, the DMW was also looking at human trafficking incidents involving Filipinos in Cambodia and Laos, adding they were able to bring home several survivors from these countries.
“We need an information and education campaign. Let’s not hide this in the darkness. The more we don’t talk about it, the more we try to downplay it, the more victims there will be,” she said in an ANC interview.
“It’s online recruitment. It’s when you are at home. This is different from going outside and meeting an illegal recruiter. Here, it’s just one on one,” she added.
An official of the Department of Foreign Affairs also said Tuesday that at least 47 human trafficking victims have reached out to them to seek help for their repatriation.
Ople issued the statement after the Philippine government rescued at least 12 Filipinos from a syndicate operating in Myanmar.
“We are looking at not just Myanmar. We are also looking at Cambodia and Laos,” the Migrant Workers Secretary told ANC’s Headstart.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration itself issued an advisory against online offers such as “data encoders” and “customer service relations” in these Southeast Asian nations.
Ople said: “The POEA has issued an advisory, cautioning our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers), especially the job applicants, against these online recruitment for our workers to illegally go and be employed in these so-called crypto-technoparks in very remote areas in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.”
The online illegal recruitment scheme was earlier disclosed by Sen. Hontiveros after one of the victims sought her office’s help.
Citing statements from the victims, Ople said the workers were lured with a monthly salary of P400,000 for six months. They were told to use dating apps and cultivate relations with “eligibles” or potential investors.
Some of the victims were not paid for their work.
“I believe that this is really the work of, as Sen. Risa (Hontiveros) said, it’s a syndicate that’s well-versed in how to use online platforms and also how to remove any traces of evidence that can be found online,” Ople said, who assured victims they would be provided legal jobs.
The victims will also be given financial assistance and provided with psychosocial counseling.
During the Senate hearing, “Paulo” told the committee that the recruiter, whom he identified as a certain Laisa Magallanes, instructed him that someone at the airport would escort them and expedite their departure.
The service costs P30,000 and would be deducted from their salary, he was told.
Paulo said that on October 4, someone working for the escort approached him to return his passport for him to be able to check in.
He was told to proceed to Bay 13 in the arrival area, where the escort gave him an ID pass showing him to be an employee working at the airport.
Paulo said the escort’s assistant asked him to surrender his passport again.
At this point, Paulo said, he sent a message to Magallanes to inform her that he was not going to continue with the process.
He said he went to the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) to seek a refund of his travel tax and tell them what had happened to him but was told to ask for police assistance.
Paulo said those who were already in Myanmar badly needed help.
Hontiveros, during the hearing, asked Immigration Commissioner Norman Tansingco if this report has been brought to their attention.
“It’s like Pastillas Part 2, but it’s worse and more intense. Are airport security or personnel also involved? Are the illegal recruiters in the pockets and complicity of BI or airport officials?” the senator added.
In February 2020, a reshuffle took effect at the Immigration bureau covering those assigned in NAIA following expose regarding the so-called “pastillas scheme” in which bureau personnel receive kickbacks to facilitate the entry of Chinese nationals, who pay a “service fee” of P10,000 per head.
Hontiveros grilled immigration officials on the matter during a Senate hearing and presented video shots of alleged conversations among immigration officers, with names of Chinese nationals whose entry they reportedly facilitated.
Although he said they are “not fully aware of this modus operandi,” Tansingco said he heard about four attempts of the same illegal operation.
Looking at the photo of the BI stamp on Paulo’s passport in Hontiveros’ presentation, Tansingco said the stamp used was “obviously fake.”
At this point, Tansingco said MIAA was able to intercept four passengers being put through the same process on October 31, November 6 and November 16.
Tulfo then raised the possibility of the recruiters having an accomplice within the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.
Tulfo then urged the IACAT to strengthen their measures and their monitoring to catch those involved in the scheme.
Chiong said on four separate occasions in October and this month, MIAA security guards in Terminal 3 have foiled attempts of four passengers posing as employees of a concessionaire, to leave the country bypassing immigration formalities.
He added passengers were endorsed to the Inter-agency Council Against Trafficking for proper disposition.
“The MIAA deplores this act against humanity and vows to fully support multi-agency initiatives to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice,” said Chiong.
Meanwhile, another human trafficking victim, using the pseudonym “Baby,” also testified before the Senate panel about the abuse that she had gone through in Myanmar.
Baby said she had been offered a call center job in Thailand in April 2022.
In the same month, Baby described the circuitous route they took to the job: first they traveled from Manila to Zamboanga by plane. After three days in Zamboanga, they took a boat to Tawi-Tawi, where another boat took them to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
From there, they spent the night in a hut and the next day were taken to Miri in Sarawak, changing vehicles three times. In Miri they stayed in a hotel for three days before being moved to an apartment, where they stayed for a month.
From there they were brought to Kuala Lumpur, and then to Bangkok. In Bangkok, they were brought to a forest, changing vehicles again several times throughout the trip. Then they crossed a river and reached a compound.
Baby then went on to describe physical abuse at the hands of the people keeping her there.
If they didn’t follow their employers’ orders, Baby said, they were put inside a black room.
She said the physical abuse went on for two months, prompting her to beg her recruiter to release her from the place where they were working.
Because she has not received her salary, Baby said her fellow Filipinos there chipped in so she could return to the Philippines.