Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Jaime Morente informed the Senate that agency has rolled out a full investigation on the departure of 44 women trafficked in Syria.
The update was revealed during Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations, and Gender Equality, chaired by Senator Risa Hontiveros.
“We received information from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs about 44 women in Syria that were victimized by human trafficking syndicates,” said Morente. “I have ordered the immediate creation of a fact-finding committee to find out how these victims were able to depart the Philippines,” he added.
During the senate hearing, Morente expressed his commitment to assist the Senate Committee in investigating those involved in the scheme. “I am disappointed and frustrated about the alleged involvement of BI personnel in these nefarious activities,” he said.
He shared that at least 28 immigration officers are being investigated on their involvement in said scheme. “As already proven in the past, we will not hesitate to make them face the harshest penalties,” said Morente.
In the hearing, Morente thanked those who testified for sharing their experiences to bring to light the issue. “The alleged involvement of a handful of immigration personnel with such schemes give the BI a bad name. It is unfair to many good immigration officers who perform their jobs religiously and faithfully, especially those involved in activities of the IACAT (Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking)”.
Morente bared that from 2017 to 2020, a total of 112,033 Filipinos were stopped from leaving the country for attempting to leave with improper documents. “Majority of this number were those seen to be workers leaving in the guise of being tourists,” he shared.
In the same period, a total of 1,070 victims were also referred to the IACAT for being possible victims of trafficking in persons.
Because of the efforts of the BI, together with other members of the council, the Philippines has upgraded and consistently retained its Tier 1 ranking for the fifth year in a row, in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, proving the agency’s significant efforts to protect departing Filipinos.
A Tier 1 rating means the Philippines has continually demonstrated serious and sustained efforts to combat the crime, making the country the forerunner in the South East Asian region when it comes to efforts against human trafficking.
Hontiveros expressed her satisfaction upon hearing that the BI initiated and is leading the investigation to crack down alleged members of this syndicate. In the hearing, whistleblowers Alex Chiong and Jeffrey Dale Ignacio also shared that apart from erring officers, airline visa readers and illegal agents were part of the conspiracy.
“Like what we raised during the previous hearings, this scheme has grown with people from many sectors involved,” said Morente. “We hope that through this investigation, we can finally be rid of this by pulling it from its roots,” he added.
Morente stated that they have requested the help of the Department of Justice, which is their mother department, in investigating and prosecuting those involved.
Hontiveros noted that the same names were revealed by whistleblowers Chiong and Ignacio to be involved in the alleged illegal scheme.
It can be recalled that 86 immigration personnel were suspended and faced various cases following Hontiveros’ explosive investigation last year.
Morente added that while they have dismantled the members of said syndicate following last year’s Pastillas inquiry, as well as put in place safeguards to prevent it from again occurring, he believes that the long-term solution to the perennial problem of corruption in the Bureau is the passage of the new immigration law.
“The new law is a game changer, as it will address so many problems of the Bureau. Apart from updating an already outdated 81-year-law, it will address organizational structure issues, improve employee compensation, and most importantly vest the agency head a disciplinary mechanism to be able to swiftly act on reports of irregularities,” said Morente.
He shared that with his experiences as a field commander in his assignments in the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he believes that the best deterrent is “certainty and timeliness of punishment”—an option not available to the Commissioner.
Senator Joel Villanueva, who is part of the committee, expressed his appreciation for Morente’s efforts to cleanse the Bureau. According to Villanueva, he has personally witnessed how Morente was able to act on arising issues that involved the immigration.
Morente, on his part, vowed to be unrelentless in his efforts to eradicate all illegal activities in the Bureau. “That has been a commitment of my administration over the past 5 years. It’s a tough job, and after resolving one issue out sprouts another. But we remain undaunted and dedicated to the complete cleansing of the Bureau,” he stated.