TACLOBAN, Philippines– As if confronting the devastation, loss, disease and hunger of life in the wake of a catastrophe such as Typhoon Haiyan were not challenging enough, many face an additional horror: human trafficking.
A week after the super typhoon struck the Philippines, the death count is estimated at 10,000 but is predicted to rise as reports continue to pour in. The natural disaster has also left 600,000 homeless, affecting at least a total 11 million Filipinos. Among these numbers, women and children are the most vulnerable.
Justine Greening, Britain’s International development secretary who is aiding in coordinating United Kingdom response to the natural disaster, has expressed concern about “the safety of women and girls in the Philippines.” She said, “after previous emergencies in the Philippines, we have seen an increase in the violence against women and girls and in particular the trafficking of girls.”
Prior even to disaster striking, many Filipinos were vulnerable to human trafficking. With 47.5 percent of Filipinos living on less than $2 per day, one in ten finds work abroad, many in exploitative situations. The United States identifies the Philippines as a ‘Tier 2’ source country in its Human Trafficking Report with an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Filipinos trafficked. Given the rampant instability, economic devastation, and loss of life and infrastructure brought on by Haiyan more Filipinos than ever will be vulnerable–especially children.
The Philippines is far from unique in this. As explained by Krista Armstrong, Save the Children’s global media manager: “Lone children in disasters are very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking. The first few weeks of any disaster are really critical in terms of putting children at risk. We know this from previous experiences.”
In the aftermath of its massive earthquake in 2010, a huge population of Haiti’s children was left totally vulnerable. With 45 percent of its population under the age of 15 and more than 300,000 children already in forced labor prior to the earthquake, Haiti was ripe for exploitative situations. A ban on adoption was put in place as, according to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive: “There is no question that either NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or institutions of any kind can take children off the streets (for adoption) and say that they are orphans.” The loosening of borders to allow aid to flow into the country only made trafficking that much easier. And the abysmal economic conditions created by the natural disaster further drove the phenomenon.
So is the case around the world. The 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa saw families marry off their daughters–some as young as nine–to pay their dowries in kind before their livestock died. The crippling poverty created by Pakistan’s 2010 floods, which left one fifth of Pakistan’s land underwater, also contributed to a rise in human trafficking.
Myanmar’s 2008 cyclone saw a similar phenomenon. As explained by a local anti-trafficking activist: “Cyclone Nargis ripped into the Irrawaddy delta, killing tens of thousands and tearing families apart, many young women were trafficked to cities and forced to work at sex-related businesses like karaoke bars and massage parlors.”
Unfortunately, intervention in human trafficking is not prioritized in disaster relief efforts, though there are efforts to address this. Harvard’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research underscores that “natural disaster and armed conflicts are primary environments for this illicit trade, raising the need for a cogent international response to human trafficking in complex emergencies.” The U.S. State Department has also called for the inclusion of anti-trafficking measures in humanitarian aid situations. Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons outlined that “counter-trafficking interventions should be included in contingency planning, and must start in the emergency phase of disaster response.”
With four million children affected by Typhoon Haiyan, implementing such anti-trafficking measures in the Philippines is imperative.
– Kelley Calkins