Philippine storm rains down trafficking fears

Boston, Davao Oriental, Philippines - Larisa Loreto is leaving her husband, her two young daughters, and her home, which Typhoon Bopha left in a collapsed heap along the main highway. Goats, dogs and a kitten rummage through what is left of her family's belongings.  

Larisa is one of 23 women in her village to sign up to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia: a result of the typhoon that struck the east coast of the Philippines in December. "Only two women from Carmen went to the Middle East before the typhoon. We haven't seen anything like this before - 1 percent of the village is going!" says Rosalinda Adalim, a village leader. "Every home has been damaged or destroyed, and almost 100 percent of village farmlands are devastated," she adds.

The only sign of Larisa's house here is the concrete floor and foundation wall. As she looks over the sopping mess that has been further gutted by weeks of heavy rain, she swallows back her tears. Village leaders have warned her of the dangers of going, and her daughters want her to stay - but Larisa is defiant in her decision.

Larisa's family was not poor before the typhoon, unlike many of the other families affected. But now, only a few weeks after the typhoon, she is leaving on a two-year job contract that she has not read, through an agent she has not even met.

"I don't have a choice. We have no cash," she says, surveying the clutter of broken pots, personal belongings, and tangled wires.
 
Larisa lost her small business selling biscuits and cigarettes in the typhoon. Even if she did have the money to replenish her stock, no one would have the money to buy these luxuries anymore, she explains. Her husband worked in the local rice-mill, but there is no more work with the mills and paddy fields destroyed.

The couple also ran a "videoke" bar attracting local villagers and highway passers-by, but this was also lost. The family has managed to erect a temporary shelter where the bar stood with a flimsy frame and tarpaulin sheets.

Like most people in the village, the couple also had a regular income from coconut plantations. "We had two hectares but all our trees are dying, and no one will have an income from coconut for another generation," Larisa says.

'It's made people desperate'

"You can see the coconut trees on the hills. They stand tall like candles that once lit up our lives. Now they have no spirit - dying before our eyes," says Ike Aking, a representative of the indigenous Mandaya tribe, who adds that there had been 19,704 hectares of coconut trees in this municipality alone. "It's made people desperate. If they want to go overseas we warn them, but can't stop them."

Larisa says she is aware of the dangers of travelling to the Middle East but is adamant about going: she has been promised an income of $400 a month, far more than her family income before the typhoon.

The Philippines' Department of Social Welfare and Development say the government has been fighting outward migration - both legal and illegal - but admit that they cannot keep up with the pace at which women move or are moved.

The department is providing 10-day-long cash-for-work programmes for families affected by the typhoon.

Maria Elvira Ador, regional director of the Philippines' Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), says they had expected an increase in women working overseas in the wake of the disaster. "Women say they would rather die in the Middle East than die of hunger here. This is likely to be exacerbated by the typhoon," she says. "Movement of women is very fast and hard to track, making data hard to get."

Risk of abuse
 
OWWA deals with complaints from women returning after working abroad. Last year it dealt with 550 cases. "Many return after a month, having been abused, ill-treated or not paid. Some cases deal with the repatriation of body parts," she says, adding that many returning workers who have been badly treated do not file complaints.

Every day 4,767 men and women leave legally to work overseas, according to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration. There are no statistics on how many travel illegally, though the Mindanao Migrant Centre for Empowering Actions (MMCEAI) estimates the number matches those travelling legally.

"What's going on in Carmen is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. We have a labour export policy," says Inorisa Sialana-Elento, MMCEAI's executive director. "There are strict guidelines for agents, including recruiting people from a designated place, date and documented agent to ensure women know who they are dealing with. Without this, the recruitment is illegal and women are trafficked," she adds.

Trafficking, including sexual trafficking, has existed for years in southern Mindanao, activists say.

People living in areas affected by typhoons can become more vulnerable to trafficking and abuse, according to aid agencies like UNICEF. "The government is focused on emergency relief, so they're vastly under-resourced to deal with this emerging silent disaster for women," Sialana-Elento says.

Dwight Zabala, a child protection officer working for UNICEF, says "we have been warning of a crisis like this following the typhoon. Working in the Middle East has become synonymous with labour and sexual exploitation for women and young girls. It's important to ensure women and young girls are aware of the risks."

There are also serious protection issues for children, especially girls, left behind who may become more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation without their primary caregiver present. The Child Protection Emergency Cluster, a coordinating body consisting of government, UN and other humanitarian agencies, says ten to 14-year-old girls are the most vulnerable, and are easy targets for abuse and exploitation.

The risk of abuse to her or her daughters is something Larisa cannot think about now. She is packing a few things and leaving on a bus for Surigao Del Sur, further north along the coast, where she will meet her agent and see a contract for the first time before going to Manila and then heading to Saudi Arabia.

"Of course I wouldn't go if we had our income. They have phones in Saudi - I will remain close to my girls over the two years I'm gone," she says.

"But they'll take away your phone," counters Rosalinda Adalim, a village leader.

Larisa ignores her. "If I didn't leave now, maybe I would take my daughters out of school so they can work instead," Larisa says. "This way, my daughters will still be in school when I return."

Meena Bhandari wrote this article on a trip to the Philippines facilitated by UNICEF.