Sen. Loren Legarda has called on President Benigno Aquino III to sign immediately the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act amid reports of human traffickers preying on women and children in the typhoon-stricken areas of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental.
Legarda, chair of the Senate subcommittee looking into human trafficking, expressed "extreme alarm" over reports of human traffickers in Mindanao's devastated communities in the aftermath of Typhoon "Pablo."
"We have seen the need to strengthen the existing law, and we have acted swiftly on it. But human trafficking, and the related problems of the illegal sex trade, forced labour and other forms of slavery, is a complex web. Battling it requires concerted effort from all sectors of society," she said in a statement issued on Friday.
"Remember that traffickers target the most vulnerable sectors of society and this is the injustice that we must act against. Those responsible must be caught and subjected to our criminal laws. Furthermore, we also look forward to the immediate enactment of the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act."
The bill passed by Congress is a strengthened version of the Anti-Trafficking Law. It covers attempted trafficking and has accessory or accomplice liability, thereby covering more related acts and individuals. It is awaiting signature by the President.
Republic Act No. 9208, or the Anti-Trafficking of Persons Act of 2003, penalizes human trafficking crimes with prison terms ranging from six years to 20 years and fines from P500,000 to P2 million.
Trafficking in persons include recruitment in the guise of domestic or overseas employment for sexual exploitation, forced labour or involuntary debt bondage, recruiting any Filipino woman to marry a foreigner, sex tourism, recruitment for organ removal and recruitment of a child to engage in armed activities abroad.
The law also provides a list of acts that promote trafficking such as assisting in the exit of trafficked persons.
Both houses of Congress in December ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the Expanded Anti-Trafficking Act.
The amendments increased the list of punishable acts that promote trafficking, "to include an act to destroy or tamper with evidence, to influence witnesses in an investigation, or to utilize one's public office to impede an investigation or to obstruct the execution of lawful orders."
"Enactment into law of the Expanded Anti-Trafficking Act will fill the voids in the existing law," Legarda said following the Senate's ratification of a bicameral report early this month.
She said the enactment of the measure would ensure added protection not just for trafficked victims, but also, to a reasonable extent, law enforcement officers and social workers "from harassment suits for lawful acts done in good faith during authorised rescue operations, investigation or prosecution of a case."
Legarda also said "disasters are linked inextricably to poverty and socioeconomic inequality."
"It is important to realise that the changing climate will have its worst effects on the poorest of the poor, and nowhere is this clearer than in these reports of human traffickers prowling Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental," said Legarda, who also is chair of the Senate committee on climate change.
"Men, women and children from marginalised and devastated communities are at high risk, and we must do everything in our power to stop these illegal operations once and for all," she added.
Legarda said the problem of human trafficking would only become more pronounced as Filipinos are left vulnerable as a result of disasters.
"We are now seeing the intersecting forces of natural hazards and human greed, and how they threaten those who are already marginalised. This is an issue of utmost importance," she said.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman earlier sought the help of relief workers in spreading information on human trafficking. She said the situation in areas devastated by Typhoon "Pablo" on Dec. 4 made women and children easy prey.
"More than the horizontal values, we need to inform them that there is going to be a better way of surviving," Soliman said.