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From migrants to victims of trafficking

· ​The interview ·

A woman in the Philippines, mother of three, has been fighting for years against the new forms of slavery

For multitudes of women on the continent of Asia emigration seems their only hope of living a dignified life. But all too often emigrating becomes a hell: indeed, the journey towards a better future comes up against the reality of human trafficking.

After a life of atrocities suffered and witnessed, fighting to safeguard the dignity of one’s neighbour might seem utopian. For many of these women, working for years as minors, being held in grim prisons for political reasons and being subjected to abuse and violence would be a reason to retreat into a corner and claim that they’d already paid what was owing in the account book of life. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda did not do so: a wife and mother of three and a survivor of the Marcos regime, she has worked for years to save the victims of human trafficking in the Philippines, one of the geographically fundamental junctions of this horrible trade which transforms the aspirations of those seeking a better life – mainly women – into a hell of abuse and complicit silences, corruption and bullying.

Children on the Outskirts of Manila

In 1991 Flores-Oebanda set up the Visayan Forum Foundation to combat the buying and selling of her fellow countrymen and women. “Our first, most important and pressing commitment is that of preventive action. We seek in every way”, she says, “to intercept the victims of trafficking before they leave the country. For this reason we try to be present in less busy airports and at the points of access to the “clandestine” routes which lead the future slaves to their final destinations.

Born into a very poor Catholic family, this courageous activist began to work at a very early age, “because we had to bring food home”. She grew up during the turbulent years of the martial law imposed by the dictator Marcos, President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. On approaching adolescence she drew close to the Church. During this period the Church was seen as the sole bulwark, both spiritual and social, still standing against the dictator. “In those years”, she recounts, “the military began to attack parishes and Catholics. Some of my colleagues were kidnapped and my best friend was raped and killed. Forced to flee and to hide, I became a mother for the first time in the mountains, while I was opposing the dictatorship”.

To protect her son Cecilia entrusted him to relatives: “My husband and I stayed in the mountains and after five years we were captured by the soldiers. I was eight months pregnant with my second child. Three of my companions were killed before my eyes. I begged the soldiers to spare their lives but they answered me: “We are under martial law, this is a merciful homicide!”.

the Foundress of the Visayan Forum

In 1986 Marcos surrendered power and the country began to breathe again. However the general economic situation was terrible and emigration seemed the only possible way for those who wanted to improve their lives. In time conditions improved, but working abroad is still a preferential option for Filipinos. According to data from the Manila Government, about 10 million of Cecilia’s compatriots work abroad today: the most popular destinations being the richest ones of East Asia – such as Hong Kong and Singapore – and the Gulf States. Nevertheless hundreds of cases have been reported of abuse or of crushing working conditions for these migrants, who are indeed treated as modern slaves.

“The phenomenon of human trafficking”, Flores-Oebanda explains to women church world, “is endemic and uncontrolled in Asia. The traffickers normally use maritime routes but the transport of victims to the various nations through international airports or other “gates of access” which are less strictly controlled is also very common. These are inter-connected dynamics because in fact the traffickers keep all their options open, and then choose the entry point according to each case. Such “cases” are in fact the willingness of local authorities to let themselves be corrupted and the capacity of the illegal means of transport.

But how do the future slaves reach this point? “The so-called ‘recruiters’”, the activist continues, “are usually family friends or people who choose this way to approach the victims simply through a false closeness to families in difficulty. Or else they use the social networks: with the latter path they succeed in gaining trust in the communities of origin and in people who want to find an alternative to improve their lives through emigration”.

These people, she reports, “are masters in the art of persuasion and succeed in such a way as to control the lives of their victims. The traffickers are despicable because they exploit with ease and unscrupulousness the social and economic vulnerability of their victims and, in a special way, the cultural weaknesses. Poverty and unemployment stir up desperation in the people and incite them to accept enormous risks”.

A Group of Volunteers

The most common destination is that of service as an illegal worker in a family or firm. But the sex market is certainly the worst alternative: “One of the greatest risks for human trafficking victims today is that of sex tourism and of the industry of sex exploitation: these two worlds violently attack our children, who are objectively the victims most at risk of trafficking and abuse. The erosion of human dignity and of shared values in our society ensures that the exploitation of women and children has now become an almost accepted, or at least tolerated, reality”.

This is why the Forum maintains safe zones in the country of origin: “We have some houses where we take in girls torn away from prostitution. Here we offer counselling services, in other words psychological and practical support to enable them to return to normal life, but especially protection in cases in which the girls wish to denounce their traffickers. And we also conduct a programme of sensitization among the younger girls, in communities and schools, in collaboration with other religious groups”. This aspect in particular plays a key role, given that the Philippines is in fact a nation with a patriarchal stamp: “Also in the context of dialogue between the organizations of civil society, commitment on behalf of the victims of human trafficking is more often than not seen as a male prerogative. However this is at least a less myopic approach. I believe that in this field more women must be present, because they are more effective. Being a woman today, especially in Asia, requires facing far more complications, especially if you are a mother, wife and worker. Yet it is precisely in facing these challenges that we women discover we have a different inner force which I call resilience: we do not easily give up. At times they knock us down but we are always able to get back on our feet and start again”.

It is pointless, Flores-Oebanda stresses, to tell ourselves stories: “Here in our country women are still marginalized. But I don’t want the message to be passed on that we are competing with men: instead I consider that we can walk on the same path. Filippino society is still very chauvinist, in the provinces women have no voice: those who have suffered abuse are viewed in a bad light, instead of being seen as victims. We must combat this sentiment”.

Over time the group founded by Flores-Oebanda has had successes which show that a change of route is possible. Yet practical help from the Western world is also necessary. “The societies of the so-called ‘civilized world’ play a most important role, because it is they who can intervene to limit the demand. It is the demand which generates human trafficking and it is the demand which increases the reduction to slavery of young women, as well as the constraining of our children to forced labour”. Obviously the support of groups which, like the Visayan Forum, act in loco to intervene before it is too late, also plays a major role: “Every cent is important because it can truly change these people’s lives”.

However, the driving force of this commitment – even in the face of a life which has truly spared Flores-Oebanda nothing – is nourished by faith: “From the time when I was 14 years old I sought to serve as a catechist. I was brought up in the firm conviction that every person is created in the image and likeness of God. And today, in helping the victims of human trafficking, I know I am carrying out a mission of which God approves”.

“The Lord”, she adds, “will continue to send people and assist us in carrying on our ministry. This faith is unshakeable and is my strength every time that I find myself facing a new challenge which God presents to me. I believe that my work is a sort of apostolate: my faith comes into action. And I am honoured at the idea of having been called to serve, and above all at having been able to respond”.

Vincenzo Faccioli Pintozzi

Cecilia Flores-Oebanda

Cecilia Flores-Oebanda has worked for about 25 years saving victims of human trafficking. Because of her social commitment she was imprisoned during the years of the Marcos dictatorship and received many death threats. In 1991, together with her husband, she founded the Visayan Forum, an NGO for the most vulnerable people in the Philippines, involved in the prevention of and recovery from human trafficking. As a mother and wife, she has always been deeply committed to the life of the Filippino Catholic community. She was the first person to win the Iqbal Mashi Prize for the elimination of child labour, a recognition created by the United States Department of Labor. In 2005 Flores-Oebanda and the Forum were awarded the Anti-Slavery Prize by Anti-Slavery International, the oldest human rights organization in the world. In 2012 the government led by former President Benigno Aquino iii named her “a model for society in the Philippines”.

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