A night helping trafficked Filipinas back from Syria

By: Romina D. Sta. Clara

It’s the first time I joined the field operations of IOM-Philippines on assisted voluntary return.  In this case, the Government of the Philippines through its embassy in Syria has requested IOM to assist with the voluntary return of about 60 Filipinos. For IOM, this means providing assistance in transportation (from Syria airport until they reach the Philippine airport) and ensuring that the returnees are properly endorsed to government authorities upon arrival at the Philippine airport. For this kind of work, routine coordination is made with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Bureau of Immigration (BoI), Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA),  Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT).

2 July 2013

4:00 pm: I get my briefing from the Operations Unit on what to expect in the field and what is expected from IOM in this event. For this batch of about 60 individuals, it is estimated that majority are victims of trafficking in persons. Note to self: no photographs of faces during the field mission. The Etihad flight from Syria is expected to arrive at 11:00 pm and we have to be at the airport at least an hour before the arrival of the returnees.

8:00 pm: We (two Operations staff, one intern, and myself) are informed that the flight is delayed by another hour.

11:00 pm: We are at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and we get our Official Business passes that allow entry beyond the immigration lane.

12:00 mn: We are sitting beside the unstaffed Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) Help Desk, and a Filipina with an IOM plastic bag passes by and asks for assistance. We ask her to go back to the holding area with the rest of Filipinos with similar bags and explain that they will be processed by OWWA. We can not accompany her until we get our special events passes from the NAIA Public Affairs Office (NPAO). These passes allow us entry to the holding area for the returnees while they are processed for immigration, customs, IACAT and OWWA records.

3 July 2013

1:00 am: The NPAO is apologetic for the delay in the release of the special passes (we missed the early part of the processing of returnees), and even suggests that we simultaneously forward a copy of IOM’s request to their office when we inform OWWA about return schedules. The DFA representatives (two men) are left behind in the luggage area since they do not have the special events pass to enter the holding area. When we reach the holding area, there are 58 women returnees; a sizeable number are Muslims and from Maguindanao.  All the returnees, before they can exit the airport, have to complete all the government forms from OWWA, IACAT, Customs and BoI. Many are obviously struggling to fill up the form. We assist them by translating the questions on the form or writing their answers. Some have passports but do not even know where to find the information required by the government forms. Some have temporary travel documents. Some are young women, and some are older women. Some are obviously dazed from the long trip, and the repetitive questions in the various forms (e.g., page 1 of one form asks about the name of the recruiter, another form from IACAT asks the same question on another page). One woman we assisted looked so pale, we had to ask for medics before she could proceed with completing the government forms.  I wonder if the government could wait for the returnees or trafficking victims to get some rest, sleep or debriefing before they fill up all the requisite forms.

2:30 am: After over two hours of translating, explaining, writing and stamping plus roughly a dozen government representatives and the IOM crew, the returnees are now ready to collect their bags and go.  Some are going to stay overnight in the OWWA Hotel. Some have family members waiting outside the airport to bring them home after years of absence. We wait for the women to pass through customs and get into the OWWA bus, or meet their families. Before we leave NAIA, the DFA mentions that they are readying plans for the return of Filipinos from the Middle East and they look forward to IOM’s assistance again.

3:00 am: Back to the IOM office (in Makati) to get our own bags and change clothes.

3:30 am: I’m home in Quezon City. I still can’t shake off the faces of trafficked women thanking IOM for the assistance. I sleep fitfully thinking about this piece.


Romina D. Sta. Clara is a project development officer for IOM Philippines