Better nets

In this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report from the State Department of the US, our country has maintained the highest possible ranking at Tier 1, for the sixth consecutive year – all in spite of the ongoing pandemic. A Tier 1 ranking means the nation meets the current international standard for minimum requirements for the elimination of human trafficking. As I’ve mentioned before, this is an incredible achievement which took many years of concerted effort on the part of the Philippine government and non-governmental agencies.

But as I said last year, while this ranking is an achievement worth acknowledging, it also signals not a reprieve but a responsibility, a redoubling of efforts rather than a relaxation. As Secretary Guevarra said: “We continue to aspire to improve our responses and to recalibrate our efforts to address the recommendations proposed in the 2021 US TIP Report, starting with the promising amendments to legislation in order to address the current gaps…”

One of those recommendations is the need to find ways to convict government officials who are complicit in trafficking crimes, and to conduct a more vigorous investigation of such crimes, particularly labor trafficking. In previous columns, I have been frank about the unique difficulties faced in the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking, as well as in providing support for victims.

There are several factors which make prosecution of trafficking cases more difficult, but much of it comes down to the difficulty of acquiring evidence. Many times, the testimony of the victims is not only the best evidence available – it is the only evidence available. But because of the nature of the crime, and the adversarial nature of our court system that lends itself easily to revictimization, many victims are unwilling to take the stand against their abusers. And if the victim does not do so, even for the most understandable of reasons, there are courts that will find this fact alone to be a death knell for the case of the prosecution (a stance I disagree with).

For crimes that make use of remote means, such as the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), finding evidence – or even discovering that the crime is taking place – can be even more daunting. The advent of social media and streaming technology makes investigation difficult, particularly since live streams usually do not result in a stored image or file, and any evidence of what occurred will be fragmented across different platforms and devices. The tools available to law enforcement have a long way to go before they can be adapted to such methods of online exploitation.

Of course, this does not mean that we should simply accept that as a fact and live with the current status quo, not when the pandemic is making human trafficking even harder to stamp out. The United Nations recently released a report on the impact of COVID-19 on victims and survivors of human trafficking. The report found that the pandemic exacerbated existing disadvantages and that many of the measures used to contain the virus did not take into account the vulnerabilities of groups such as victims of, or those in danger of becoming victims of, human trafficking. The report mentions that since the pandemic began, “trafficking in persons went even further underground” and there has been an increase in both domestic trafficking and online.

In particular “[w]omen and girls have been recruited, often locally or online, for sexual exploitation, especially in private apartments. Children have been particularly affected – out of school and needing to support parents who have lost their livelihoods… [t]here is clear evidence of increased demand for child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM), which has exacerbated the exploitation of children around the world.” All this, coupled with manpower and funding shortages due to the priority given to COVID-19, as well as the dangers posed by the virus itself, have threatened the gains we’ve made in the fight against human trafficking. COVID-19 has dragged many around the world into desperate states, and desperation is a perfect breeding ground for exploitation such as human trafficking.

What can be done? While we hope and support the creation of new tools, we must also make better use of the tools that are available. One aspect that will help in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases is its addition to the list of crimes for which law enforcement officials may legally apply for wire tapping permission. This could be done either through an amendment of Republic Act No. 4200, the Anti-Wire Tapping Act, or through the amendment of the Anti Trafficking in Persons Act (there is a substitute bill pending in the House of Representatives which does just that). The stringent safeguards required in the Anti-Wire Tapping Act would and should still be present, but trafficking in persons would now join the likes of treason, espionage and conspiracy wherein permission for a wiretap could conceivably be granted.

This would be an important step not only because of the nature of the crime of trafficking – one which not only is organized through telecommunication, but in the case of OSEC may be perpetuated entirely remotely – but it will also allow the collection of evidence independent of the testimony of the victims, which will expand the options of the prosecution when the victims are unwilling to take the stand, or when it would be better that they not be exposed to a court’s adversarial process for humanitarian reasons.

The 30th of July is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. Here in the Philippines, July has also been declared National Anti-Trafficking in Persons Awareness Month. It’s an opportune time to reflect on what we’ve done to combat human trafficking, and what we still have to do. With humility, we must acknowledge that more must be done to catch powerful persons complicit in human trafficking, more must be done to catch the masterminds, the so-called big fish.

But to catch bigger fish, we need better nets. While never stinting in the safeguards to prevent exploitation and abuse, it’s time to give our law enforcers the tools they need to better do their job and to relieve, at least in part, the burden unfairly placed on the shoulders of the victims of trafficking.

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