Updated: March 05, 2018 03:54 AM GMT
Church groups and rights activists mark the International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking on Feb. 8 with a candle-lit prayer rally in Manila. (Photo by Mark Saludes/uncanews.com)
Michelle thought her prayers had been answered when she finally left her home in the Philippines for Saudi Arabia last year to work as a maid.
She thought the employment contract she had signed was her ticket out of poverty.
Sadly, she was gravely mistaken. In fact, she had joined a throng of her compatriots who have become inadvertent victims of human trafficking.
The nightmare began before she arrived in the Middle East, where reports of Filipino women being raped and even murdered by their employers have sparked international condemnation.
Instead of going to the capital Riyadh, as stated on the piece of paper she had signed, Michelle was flown to Jeddah, a commercial hub and port city on the Red Sea.
There the 27-year-old Filipino worked 15 hours a day, with barely enough time to eat and sleep.
One day, she managed to escape. With the help of another Filipino worker, the distressed woman reached the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh where she sought shelter.
In less than a week, Michelle's employer came to find her with an escort of Saudi policemen. She was arrested and incarcerated for a few days until her employer sold her to another Saudi national for US$20,000.
At her new employer's house, Michelle was able to chat online with her family back in the Philippines. But there was no improvement in her work. If anything, her situation had worsened.
An estimated 401,000 Filipinos are said to be living in modern-day slavery, according to a 2016 report. (Photo by Mark Saludes/uncanews.com)
She now wakes up 6am to clean the house. By noon, her employers expect her to have already done the laundry and cooked for the family.
On some days she is taken to her employer's relatives' residence to clean there, too. In recent weeks, her boss has made sexually suggestive entreaties by asking Michelle to give him a "massage."
She claims she is only granted three hours of sleep a day because her boss's male friends also frequent the house demanding massages.
When Michelle's mother, Grace, learned of her daughter's plight, she sought help from a foreign affairs official in Manila. She demanded her daughter be repatriated for her own safety.
The official promised to help. But now a month has passed and there has been no word from the authority, she said.
"Sadly this case, like many other cases, is urgent for us but not for the authorities," said Sol Villalon, a Methodist pastor who is assisting Michelle's mother.
Mary Girlie Glen Tupas of the International Justice Mission, a group that has been assisting victims of human trafficking, said the Philippines is a fertile ground for traffickers.
"The victims mostly come from poor families that are easily convinced by recruiters in exchange for money and promises," said Tupas.
She noted that among the sources of human trafficking are tribal communities and areas hit by conflict and natural disasters.
The 2017 Trafficking in Persons report by the U.S. Department of State noted that most victims of slavery worldwide come from the Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines.
"Most victims in this region are in forced labor," read the report.
It added that conviction rates for perpetrators remain low in Asia "due to inadequate interventions from governments, corruption, and weak supply chain monitoring."
In the Philippines, the 2016 Global Slavery Index noted that an estimated 401,000 Filipinos are living in modern-day slavery.
The index showed the Philippines has an "average vulnerability score of 47.67 out of 100" despite being "a regional leader in victim support and protection."
The report said corruption contributes to the risk of modern slavery in the country.
Bishop Ruperto Santos, head of the Episcopal Commission on the Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, said trafficked persons often have no way of controlling or escaping their situation.
The bishop said human trafficking is "exploitation to the highest degree because it destroys lives of the vulnerable, people with very little option."
Hundreds of trafficked Filipinos have already sought the help of the Philippine Interfaith Movement Against Human Trafficking, established in 2013 by Catholic and Protestant bishops.
Snap Mabanta of the Migration and Human Trafficking ministry of the country's National Council of Churches said her organization handles "dozens of cases" every month.
Member churches have dormitories and sanctuaries for victims of trafficking where they undergo psychosocial procedures before being reintegrated to their communities.
"The hardest ones are cases of migrant workers," she told ucanews.com, adding that in such cases "time is of the essence."
Hundreds of cyclists ride along a road on Manila's business district in this March 9, 2013 file photo in support of a global campaign against human trafficking. (Photo by Jay Directo/AFP)
"We can only press the government to act with a sense of urgency," she said.
"We help [the victims] amplify their voices. We recognize their sole authority to speak for themselves," said Mabanta.
Because of such church programs, sometimes in partnership with government agencies, the Philippines has ranked as a Tier 1 country for two consecutive years in the U.S. Global Trafficking in Persons Report.
It is the first Southeast Asian country to be given Tier 1 status, which means it has fully met the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of the U.S. government.
Despite these achievements, the Philippines continues to suffer due to limitations in helping victims. Officials cite a lack of manpower and expertise in combating trafficking.
Bishop Santos said the church and the government need to increase their efforts to educate people about the "temptation of easy money."
"Our first act should always be to prevent persons from being illegally and falsely recruited," he said. The next step is education on human rights and the prosecution of human traffickers, added the prelate.
Meanwhile, Michelle's mother Grace is still waiting for news about her daughter.
A complaint has been lodged against Michelle's recruiter but the young woman needs to be home in the Philippines to file the official charges — and escape from a tragedy that might be awaiting her abroad.