How human trafficking victims can fight back

Editor’s Note: Cecilia Flores-Oebanda is the founder and director of the Visayan Forum Foundation in the Philippines, which helps rescue and rehabilitate trafficked women. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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Cecilia Flores-Oebanda says human trafficking victims can fight back and find new lives

But they need safety and security after they are rescued, she says

Manila, Philippines CNN  — 

Our safe house for human trafficking victims in Manila was recently attacked. The attackers threw rocks, pounded on the gates and cursed at social workers. Despite an increased police presence in the area, the group returned a few days later and left with 16 women who were sheltering at the house.

“You don’t know who you’re messing with. Everyone will be killed, even babies!” the attackers yelled as they forced open the gates. They were aided by a masked man with a gun, dressed as a police officer.

The other women at the shelter barricaded themselves in the dormitories, clutching their martial arts training sticks for protection. Staff members risked their lives to stop the intruders from getting that far.

In what seems like a coordinated attack, assailants also stormed a government shelter in an attempt to kidnap other trafficking survivors.

Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, of the Visayan Forum Foundation, receives the 2005 Anti-Slavery Award.

Our safe house is home to women and girls who have endured harrowing abuse and who are fighting legal battles against traffickers. Here, we offer them counseling, medical and legal assistance, and access to education and skills training.

The women and girls in our care are afraid that the attackers will come back. It is unforgivable for trafficking survivors to be further traumatized. We are inspired by their courage. Because of them, we cannot and will not give up.

This brazen attack was a striking reminder that there are no piecemeal solutions to human trafficking.

Globally, more than 20 million individuals are in forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization. A United Nations report says 70% of trafficking victims are women and girls. And the traffickers are continually innovating. They have now capitalized on high-speed Internet access to force children to perform live sex acts in front of a camera for a paying audience.

This crisis can only be solved through a well-coordinated system of prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnerships among government agencies, civil society organizations and the private sector. Failure at any of these stages compromises the whole process.

When we think about fighting human trafficking, we always think of rescue operations – of victims being saved from brothels, bars, factories, and plantations. In reality, this is but a small part of the work that needs to be done.

Worldwide, forced labor generates $150 billion a year. However, conviction rates for traffickers are low, especially in the Philippines. Traffickers need to know that they will be punished. Otherwise they won’t stop.

But victims cannot fight their oppressors if they are living in fear. The attacks on safe houses are but one example of the many ways in which trafficking survivors and the organizations that help them are harassed and threatened. Traffickers are wealthy, organized and ready to use violence to protect their profits. We have a duty to survivors to ensure that they are not victimized a second time when they cooperate with us in the fight.

If victims believe that we can keep them safe, they are more likely to work with prosecutors and help get traffickers convicted. Otherwise, they will walk away.

After a harrowing ordeal, the 16 women taken from our safe house were finally freed, but now they are refusing to cooperate with the justice system out of fear for their safety. Fortunately, the remaining women and girls are working with Visayan Forum and government prosecutors to strengthen the case against the traffickers.

We need increased protection for victims and the service providers that assist them. Without this support, we cannot empower victims to seek justice.

The problem doesn’t end here, however. No matter how many victims we rescue, if they are not given access to education or job placements, they are still at risk of further exploitation by traffickers. We have discharged women from our shelters only to rescue them a second time from exploitative working conditions. This revolving door of victimization points to the need for more robust rehabilitation and reintegration programs.

Walk Free estimates that 261,000 Filipinos are enslaved. There are no easy solutions for the problems that contribute to this scourge. In the Philippines, corruption, poverty and a culture of overseas labor migration are the biggest factors.

Too many people in the Philippines are reliant on relatives working abroad. And that leaves already vulnerable people open to recruiters and, when the promise of a good job turns out to be slave labor in a foreign land, abusive employers.

While working to dismantle these systemic problems, we also need to make vulnerable groups aware of red flags and reporting mechanisms so they can protect themselves and the people around them.

Over half of the 11,500 people we housed in our shelters between 2000 and 2011 were between the ages of 13 and 22. Young people are at the highest risk of being targeted by traffickers, who approach recent graduates and vocational students with offers of “special scholarships” and job opportunities.

In response, we have built up a national youth movement against trafficking called iFight. Together with survivors turned advocates, we visit schools across the country to mobilize young people to play a greater role in the fight. With close to 2 million iFighters, we are in a stronger position to increase awareness of trafficking and demand more protection for vulnerable people.

More on Cecilia Flores-Oebanda’s work and how she got Manny Pacquiao involved