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August 12, 2013

The Good Fight: Combating Human Trafficking in Cebu

I remember sitting in a café in Cebu a few years ago with my husband when a young girl caught my eye. She could not have been older than fourteen. She was morena and had long, flowing hair. She wore a skimpy top and very short shorts. What held my gaze was that she was sitting across a much older man. He was a foreigner dressed in a shirt and shorts and was a bit stocky with disheveled hair. Not being one to pry on other people’s business, I tried to shut out the thoughts that came to mind seeing them together. But then he started holding her hand. He fondled it as he spoke to her and gave her a certain look — a look that an older man should never give to an innocent little girl of fourteen. My heart broke for this little girl. “Where was her mother?” I thought to myself. “How could her life have come to this?” I wondered.

And then the man took it further. He held the little girl’s neck and ran his fingers through her hair as she sat there with an expression that was part shy, part scared, part confused. I went with my gut that told me there was something amiss and called the police. The police arrived at the café shortly after my call. They approached the foreigner and the little girl. To my surprise, an older woman suddenly arrived and spoke to the police. Shortly thereafter, the foreigner, the girl, and the older woman hurriedly left the café.

 I inquired with the police about what happened. The police said that the older woman had told them that she was the little girl’s mother and that the foreigner was “just a friend.” The little girl, on the other hand, said nothing. Having nothing else to go by, the police had to let them go.

I never saw that little girl again, but I often wonder what happened to her. While the woman who claimed to be her mother passed off as completely innocent, what happened in the café looked to me to have all the indications of human trafficking or at the very least, child prostitution or exploitation.


Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “trafficking in persons” is classified as a crime against humanity. In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that there are 2.4 million victims of human trafficking at any given time. This global menace represents an estimated US $32 billion of the hundreds of billions made in annual international illegal trade.

In the Philippines, Republic Act No. 9208 or the Anti-trafficking in Persons Act defines and criminalizes trafficking as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring, or receipt of persons with or without the victim’s consent or knowledge, within or across national borders by means of threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of position, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the person, or, the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation which includes at a minimum, the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery, servitude or the removal or sale of organs.

This year, the expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act was signed into law. It was designed to strengthen the prosecution of perpetrators of human trafficking, and the protection of their victims.


Tens of thousands of Filipino women and minors are reportedly trafficked and exploited every year. Factors that contribute to the occurrence of human trafficking are poverty, a lack of education and economic opportunities. Sadly, Cebu has seen its share of this reprehensible crime. Whether it be in a café, a mall, a resort or a household, human trafficking is a daily occurrence, and it is a reality we can no longer close our eyes to.

For the month of July alone, Cebu’s local dailies were replete with news of the rescue of young women and minors who fell victim to human trafficking. In past years, there have also been shocking reports of the arrest of parents who reportedly peddled their own children to foreigners, or used them to produce online pornographic films. In many instances, the perpetrator who takes advantage of trafficking and exploitation victims is a foreign national.

IJM Cebu

Far from becoming a safe haven for criminality and sex tourism, however, Cebu has taken a proactive approach to curbing and defeating the scourge of human trafficking. For years, local government units (LGUs) and law enforcement have cracked down on traffickers in an effort to implement the Anti-Trafficking law.

In 2011, by Executive Order, former Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia formed the Cebu Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, which brought together various agencies of government and the private sector aimed at the total eradication of human trafficking in Cebu. Signatories of the agreement inked to fight trafficking included the Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Tourism, the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas, the Cebu Ports Authority and the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority, among others. From the private sector, signatories included International Justice Mission (IJM), Aboitiz Transport System, the Hotel Resort and Restaurant Association of Cebu, the Visayas Forum Foundation Inc. and the porters’ association. Since then the task force has carried out daring and life saving rescues of trafficking victims.


The fight against human trafficking has also expanded throughout Central Visayas. In 2012, the Regional Peace and Order Council finalized a Memorandum of Agreement against trafficking with signatories that included the provinces of Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental, Siquijor, the highly urbanized cities of Cebu City, Mandaue City and Lapu-Lapu City, at least seven government agencies, and other representatives of the private sector. The regional efforts against trafficking have also borne fruit. For instance, in July this year, at least a dozen victims of human trafficking were rescued by the Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force of Police Regional Office-7, in close coordination with IJM.

Cebu Rescue 1

IJM reports that as of March 2013, 524 victims of trafficking have been rescued in Metro Cebu since 2004; and minors working in the commercial sex industry of Metro Cebu have dropped by 79 percent from 2006 to 2010. Cebu’s persistent efforts against trafficking has also gained international recognition, having been featured on CNN’s Freedom Project in 2011.

The crackdown on human trafficking has also translated to the successful prosecution of traffickers by government prosecutors with the support of LGUs and lawyers from non-governmental organizations such as IJM and the Children’s Legal Bureau. In 2012, a Cebu court sentenced two traffickers to suffer life imprisonment. This year, the manager of a club was also sentenced to life imprisonment, while a bar owner was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

While Cebu’s efforts against human trafficking have made headway in the past several years, the fight is certainly far from over. For as long as social and economic factors limit educational and economic opportunities, unscrupulous individuals will always attempt to take advantage of hapless victims such as that little girl I saw in a café years ago. As the fight continues, Cebuanos themselves can assist in stamping out human trafficking from our communities by being vigilant, being involved and by not turning a blind eye to this dehumanizing and degrading crime.

Note: The Department of Social Welfare and Development Region 7 has set up anti-human trafficking hotline numbers for the public: (0917) 7030967 and (032) 416-6839.


Photo credit: IJM

Photos used under the Fair Use Exemption of the IP Code.

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One Comment on “The Good Fight: Combating Human Trafficking in Cebu”

  • Fredrick says March 26, 2014 at 8:18 pm

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