Traditionally, as enshrined in the antiquated (read: 82-year-old) Philippine Immigration Act, the basic mandate of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) is ensuring that foreign nationals coming to the Philippines are properly documented.
But in the last decade or so, with the onset of the modern slavery of human trafficking and the creation of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAAT), BI’s crucial role in fighting human trafficking – of both foreign and local nationals coming and in and out of the country – has hastened to the fore.
In a media forum held a week ago at Packo’s Restaurant, Quezon City, BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval disclosed that the agony that trafficked victims undergo has become alarming and has taken various forms. “Dati-rati, ang ating naririnig tungkol sa victims ay hindi pinapasuweldo lang. Pero ngayon, most of them are inflicted with physical violence, kinukuryente, sexually abused, o kaya pag-hindi nakakakuha ng scamming quota ay pinapatakbo sa basketball court dala-dala ang dalawang timba ng tubig. These are all real stories that we get from those who are repatriated,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval pointed out that “recruiters operate both on in-coming and outgoing passengers” and that “the common initial points of recruitment take place on the social media – FB, Tiktok, and messaging apps.
Thus, with BI’s compelling task of abetting the scourge of human trafficking, the role of immigration officers has taken center stage. But this has been marred with stinging criticisms arising from the ‘yearbook’ issue and allegations of extortion and connivance with recruiters among immigration officers.
But, then why so the purportedly ‘irrelevant’ questioning or interview?
BI spokesperson Sandoval readily explains: “You see, our IOs now are instructed the proper manner of communicating about the relevance or purpose of asking questions or interviewing passengers. This is what we are trying to improve currently, to make people understand kung bakit may mga karagdagang katanungan, because we have noted that many of the complaints we’ve been getting is that passengers don’t understand why they’re offloaded. So, we’re constantly monitoring our frontliners at the airport. Even Commissioner Tansingco would go to the airports and talk to our IOs and terminal heads to ensure that our IOs are communicating well to passengers.”
But, is it really just an issue of less or mis-communicating?
“Paghiwalayin po natin ang dalawang realidad na nangyayari. On one hand, there’s this fact that some of our people are needing improvement on the manner of communicating or handling passengers. On the other hand, of course there’s the truth that some of our people are doing malpractices. Pero, under Commissioner Tansingco, immediately after nakakarinig tayo ng ganitong cases, we initiate an investigation immediately at inaalis natin sila agad sa frontlines, then file an administrative case and elevate the same to the Department of Justice.”
But still, granting the fact about the enormity of the problem of human trafficking, we then pose our title query: Do immigration officers really have to ask ‘irrelevant’ questions?
Sandoval explains: “Perhaps people misconstrue some questions as irrelevant. But the real score is that, because BI – pertinent to IACAT’s operational mandate – is tasked to detect instances of trafficking, our IOs are actually looking for a possible mismatch between the purpose of passengers’ travel purpose and their visa type. The most commonly abused visa type for trafficking purposes is the tourist visa, whether for visa-required or nonvisa-required destination.
“In particular, our IOs would subject passengers for secondary inspection if there is a DISCONNECT (underscoring mine) between (1) the passengers’ documents, (2) their demeanor,and (3) their statement. So, clearly, there’s a need to ask some more questions to ferret out the real purpose of travel.”
In conclusion, Sandoval stressed that given the truth that human trafficking is real, there’s a pressing need for all the concerned government agencies to put their act together in curbing human trafficking.
“The BI is just one of the 28 agencies under IACAT. Then, on the other hand, ang mga human traffickers ay magagaling at laging naghahanap ng mga makabagong paraan para makalusot. If only we can strengthen the inter-operability of these concerned agencies, if only we can harmonize the movement or actions of these agencies, then we can be successful in our collective aspiration of eradicating human trafficking.”
I can no less agree with Ms. Sandoval. Because, methinks, before a potential trafficked person reaches the immigration officer’s desk, a host of multi-layered trafficking machinations or schemes have already taken place – on the social media, in our neighborhoods and communities, workplaces, etc.
Verily, it’s time to roll up our sleeves, put our acts together, and address once and for all the evil scourge of human trafficking – nay just in the pandering halls of the Senate.