Turtle Islands Municipal Police Station rescued five alleged human trafficking victims in Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi on August 11, 2018. The women, in their early 20s to 30s, illegally entered Sandakan, Sabah thru “backdoor exits” from Southern Palawan and Zamboanga City, months ago. They came from Metro Manila and Bulacan. They were initially promised decent and better paying jobs by their recruiters but upon arrival were forced to work as waitress, domestic worker or bar girl; and were matched with Chinese/Malaysian nationals (all married), who became their benefactors. They fled from their employers and partners thru a speedboat, and were rescued by the police, with the assistance of Philippine Coastguard, near the border of Sandakan and Taganak. Sandakan, the former capital of British North Borneo, is just 30 minutes away by speedboat from Turtle Islands. Considered as marine sanctuary for turtles or pawikans, Turtle Islands is one of the farthest municipalities of Tawi-tawi, 12-15 hours away by boat or lantsa from Bongao but very near the maritime borders of Sabah.
During the community education program (CEP) of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) in Taganak, Director Ivy Miravalles and Mr. Frencel Tingga were able to meet and debrief the trafficking victims, who have been in the island for almost a week, and are temporarily under the protection and care of the police. The CFO team observed that the police treated the victims as if they were their family members. The victims will be turned over to Mindanao Field Unit (MFU) of Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) in Zamboanga for further investigation. Their perpetrators may be facing possible charges for violating the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012 and Anti-Mail Order Spouse Law of 2016.
Tawi-Tawi consists of more than 100 islands, making it hard for law enforcement to stop all trafficking activities within the area. The Philippines’ southernmost province along with Zamboanga, Sulu and Southern Palawan (due to their proximity to Malaysia) are often cited as illegal exit points of Filipinos who wanted to work in Malaysia and other neighboring countries. They would usually enter the country without any passport, working visa or any legal documents. Majority of the trafficked victims are women, forced to engage in prostitution and sex trade, labor bondage, and drug trafficking. It is for this reason that the CFO and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) targeted Tawi-Tawi as one of the areas in this year’s CEP. The IACAT is chaired by the Department of Justice and co-chaired by the Department of Social Welfare and Development. This is also in line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy pronouncement during his 2016 State of the Nation Address, where he said that war against traffickers and illegal recruiters is a problem he considers as important as drugs.
During the CEP, the local officials and officers, police, church and civil society groups, students and the public are informed of the anti-trafficking in persons and anti-illegal recruitment drive of the Philippine government, CFO programs and services, and the pros and cons of international migration in general. In Taganak, the CFO team were able to touch-base with the municipal officers of Mayor Bennie Oliveros and Turtle Islands MPS under the supervision of PCI Alpaser Haber, as well as the Philippine Navy-Tawi-tawi (BRP Felix Apolinario) headed by Cdr. Ronel Racelis. The Philippine Navy ferried the CFO team from Bongao to Taganak and vice versa, braving the open and turbulent Celebes Sea.
Prior going to Taganak, the CFO team also met with the officers of LGU-Tawi-tawi and Bongao, headed by Governor Rashidin Matba and Mayor Jimuel Que, respectively; the Municipal IACAT of Bongao, chaired by Ms. Rosabella Sulani; police officers of Bongao Police Station; Bureau of Immigration and Philippine Coastguard officers, and the students of Notre Dame High School.
The CFO led by Usec. Astravel Pimentle-Naik, is the chair of IACAT Advocacy and Communications Committee and has been very active in the nationwide information campaign against trafficking, and in providing assistance to trafficked victims from abroad. It also operates, in partnership with DOS-1, the 1343 Actionline, the 24/7 hotline and social media page, accessible to public in reporting suspected trafficking cases.