Understanding Ecosystems in the Philippines that Allow Human Trafficking to Thrive

Human trafficking is not a static phenomenon. Traffickers are consistently finding new and more efficient methods to exploit vulnerable populations across the globe. Even activists who have devoted their lives to understanding and fighting the practice of modern-day slavery can sometimes be surprised by the nature of this beast of a problem. Ask Annalisa Enrile, a professor with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck’s online MSW program who leads the school’s Philippines immersion program.

With a group of students in tow, Enrile traveled across the globe in 2013 to study poverty in urban poor communities throughout the Philippines. During a visit to one community that had lost the majority its women of child-bearing age to work abroad, Enrile began to notice something else unusual about the community’s inhabitants: Almost all of the men they had spoken to had the same scar on their abdomens.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, these scars are where your kidneys would be,’ ” says Enrile. “Finally, I asked one of the community organizers who told us that the men actually sell their kidneys because they are told that they only need one kidney to live. We were there to study one form of vulnerability to trafficking and found another.”  

Fueled by the growing medical tourism industry in Southeast Asia, organ trafficking is a mounting problem in the Philippines. But it’s hardly the most prominent form of trafficking that exists in the nation. Most Filipino trafficking victims fall prey to forced labor and sex trafficking.

The Proliferation of Trafficking in the Philippines

Labor is the Philippines’ largest export. There were an estimated 2.4 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in 2015, according to the Philippine Statistic Authority, with thousands leaving the country every day. When this type of mass migration takes place, these populations become easy prey for traffickers, who coerce victims with false promises of work. In fact, many Filipino victims of labor trafficking often have some form of education, but unscrupulous recruiters and subcontractors are savvy.     

“We are not necessarily talking about those who are put into cargo containers and smuggled into different countries,” says Enrile. “Many times we are talking about indentured servitude or debt bondage, people who are tricked through their contracts. They are told one thing and then when they get to the country that they are migrating to, their papers are taken away and what they are given as ‘work’ is often slave labor.”

The Philippines is in a unique situation within its region because it was the only English-speaking Asian country for a long time. That makes for a highly attractive workforce, particularly in the domestic work and caretaking industries — both of which exploit some of the largest numbers of labor trafficking victims from the Philippines. A workforce with an ability to speak English also helps fuel the other major form of exploitation: sex trafficking.

“Sadly, I’ve done research in so many different countries and, all over Southeast Asia, wherever there is a brothel, there are Filipina women that are commercially sexually exploited,” says Enrile.

A holdover from when the U.S. had a large military base in the region, many red light districts have now transitioned to catering to tourists. People from Canada, the U.S. and Australia make up the primary clientele of sex tourism in the country. And more children are being forced into the sex trade through cybersex trafficking.   

Effectively Addressing the Problem

In 2016, the Philippines became the only country in Southeast Asia to fully comply with minimum standards to combat trafficking required by the United States in its Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). But Enrile says to take that announcement with a grain of salt, because the TIP is not always the most reliable measure. She notes that the Philippines has a long way to go toward protecting victims of exploitation.

“The Philippines actually has solid anti-trafficking laws,” says Enrile. “The question is around implementation and corruption. If we depend purely on law enforcement to handle the issue of human trafficking in countries like the Philippines where there are huge corruption issues, then we are going to lose.”

Enrile says collaboration among entities like the World Bank, nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits, and even corporations, along with the social work field, could be the key to reigning in the human trafficking epidemic in the Philippines and around the world. She suggests that one effective method for tackling this issue is to devote resources to understanding human trafficking in the same way she studies it with her students.

“Human trafficking lives in an ecosystem,” says Enrile. “We have to understand the ecosystem and understand how families, communities, and institutions are affected to find solutions that will work.”

She notes that focusing on studying and addressing root causes of human trafficking is one area that can help make a big difference. Economic inequality, for example, is a persistent problem in the Philippines, which has seen limited middle-class growth. Working to end poverty can help to ensure that poorer segments of the population are not vulnerable to traffickers. She adds that collaboration between various entities that engage in successful pilot projects to address issues like poverty can help to bring those programs to scale at a faster pace.

“We should be looking at the points of intersection where our interests are similar as ways to begin to end this situation,” says Enrile. “It’s in nobody’s favor to continue along this trajectory of slavery.”

Learn more about modern-day slavery by visiting MSW@USC’s Guide to Understanding Human Trafficking