From some of the poorest provinces in the Philippines, they wanted better jobs as domestic workers abroad. But instead of working in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates, several young women—including three teenagers—were sent to war-torn Syria, where they faced physical, psychological and in at least one case sexual abuse.
Some of their stories, first highlighted in a sweeping Washington Post investigation in January, were front and center in the Philippines this week as harrowing testimonies were aired in the country’s Senate.
VICE World News also spoke to Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros, chair of the women and children’s committee, who is demanding answers and leading an investigation into the trafficking network.
Here are some of the details that have emerged so far.
Teenagers were trafficked
The Philippines is one of the largest labor exporters in the world, and more than 2 million Filipinos worked overseas in 2020. The money they send home in remittances is a vital part of the domestic economy. Work abroad is in high demand, especially now that the pandemic has wiped out millions of jobs in the country.
This also creates opportunities for abuse. In the latest example, more than a dozen women ensnared by traffickers told the Post that they were promised a job in Dubai, but after arriving they were locked up in a dark and dirty dormitory before they were forcibly brought to Syria to be sold as domestic workers at a price ranging from $8,000 to $10,000.
Tuesday’s hearing revealed more information about the minors that were caught up in the network. Pre-recorded testimony aired on Tuesday in the Senate shared the experiences of three victims — who were only identified with aliases — recruited as teenagers.
One of the victims, identified only as Lenlen, said that she was only 14 when recruiters came to their home to entice her with a job.
Brokers secured tampered travel documents and fudged ages, according to testimony.
“These illegal recruiters are taking advantage of the vulnerability of our women and children in their communities,” Senator Hontiveros told VICE World News in a separate interview this week.
“Grassroots level intervention needs to happen because these illegal recruiters are going door to door to entice minors,” she said, adding that her committee will come up with stronger policy recommendations to combat human trafficking.
The allegations have sent various Philippine government agencies scrambling to respond to the claims, especially as some allege involvement of corrupt officials.
The Department of Justice, which oversees the immigration bureau, said its board of discipline is now looking into the activities of immigration officers who may have been involved in the trafficking network.
“Their fact-finding reports will be submitted to the DOJ for review and initiation of formal administrative disciplinary proceedings, if found warranted,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters on Wednesday.
Some women are still stuck in Syria
For Lenlen, life was hard in Maguindanao, a conflict-ridden province in the southernmost part of the Philippines. At first, she leapt at the opportunity to work abroad.
With a passport claiming she was of age, Lenlen began to travel, but was stunned to find in transit that her ticket had Damascus as her final destination. After arriving in the Syrian capital she was handed over to her employer.
“The work was hard, they were not feeding us properly, and they were beating us up,” she said in the video.
She said she was slapped, hit with a mop and pinched by her employer until December 2019, when she escaped by jumping out of the window of the home.
“The work was hard, they were not feeding us properly, and they were beating us up.”
Another victim identified only as Aleah said she was assaulted and abused by her employers in Syria while serving them for 11 years. They confiscated her cellphone, so she had no means to tell of her ordeal. She was only allowed to use one in 2017.
At the height of the civil war in Syria, Aleah said her employers left her behind.
“When my employers fled, they told me they would arrange to get me. They repeatedly lied to me,” Aleah said in the video. “They also lost my passport so I had no choice but to be stuck in Syria.”
Aleah is now back in the Philippines.
Philippine authorities say they are having difficulty repatriating distressed migrant workers in Syria as the country requires an exit visa, which is often hard to process and would require certain documents from employers.
Veils were used to conceal ages
Crafty recruiters also took advantage of religious practices to carry out their work, particularly the wearing of veils among Muslim women, which can help conceal a person’s age, according to Hontiveros.
In the Senate hearing, an immigration officer said that those who screen passports at airports have very little time and opportunity to confirm the identity of those who wear hijabs, which mainly cover the hair, or burqas, which cover the face.
The officer suggested that a woman immigration official be assigned to confirm identities at immigration points to avoid any cultural or religious stigmas about showing one’s face to men outside their immediate family.
“Change also needs to happen when it comes to respecting and protecting our different religious practices in the country. These criminals take advantage of the hijab or the burqa to hide the real ages of the girls,” Hontiveros said.
Secret Viber groups listed the women’s names
A whistleblower revealed that corrupt immigration officers maintained a secret Viber group where a list of women who will be trafficked out of the country was held. If the women were on the list, immigration officers were supposed to let them go smoothly at passport control.
The immigration bureau said least 28 officers are already under investigation for their alleged involvement in the scheme.
"I am disappointed and frustrated about the alleged involvement of [immigration] personnel in these nefarious activities," Immigration chief Jaime Morente told the Senate committee.
This is not the first time immigration officers have been accused of involvement in human trafficking. Dozens of immigration officers were fired in October 2020 for their involvement in trafficking of Chinese nationals in the country.
Embassies are under scrutiny
After Lenlen’s escape, she said she sought sanctuary at the Philippine Embassy in Damascus. Lenlen said she was verbally and sexually abused by embassy staff at the shelter. After her family asked the embassy to bring her home, Lenlen was repatriated in January 2020.
The senior Philippine diplomatic envoy to Syria, human rights lawyer Vida Soraya Verzosa, said in the hearing that the foreign affairs department recalled some staff after the allegations surfaced. Additional details were not available.
“It’s really not tolerated in the DFA,” Verzosa said in the hearing, referring to the Department of Foreign Affairs. She added that they are still working with Syrian authorities to repatriate all trafficked migrant workers.
Hontiveros said that her investigation shows systemic corruption at various stages of the bureaucracy, which enables human trafficking. As a result, she wants to look closer at embassies and whether they are really doing everything they can to help victims.
“We also need changes among the embassy employees because it was already revealed in the committee hearing that some employees are themselves the predators, reducing our own officials to abusers of these girls,” she said.
In January this year, the foreign department replaced its team in Syria following the allegations of poor treatment of Filipino migrant workers.