Trafficking in Innocence after the Storm

Fr. Shay Cullen
May 1, 2014

Social worker Marlyn received a message that a 14-year-old girl named “Princess” had been trafficked and sold to a sex bar here in the Philippines. Marlyn alerted me, and we began planning to rescue the child, just one of thousands of children trafficked for sexual abuse each year in the Philippines and around the world. It is a problem of global reach, and the recent agreement signed by the heads and representatives of the major religions to fight it is a positive encouragement. It has been almost six months since the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), and many more children will fall victim to sexual predators as the poverty grows and young people and parents become desperate to get jobs and money. It is all too common.

Marlyn, who herself was rescued from sex-trade traffickers, works with me in the Preda Foundation organization I founded  40 years ago that actively responds to and rescues victims, and then helps them get an education and start new lives of dignity.

This time, we organized a police raid on the sex bar and rescued Princess and five other underage girls who had been entrapped there through debts and fear of retaliation against their families. The operator of the sex bar, was arrested, and during his arraignment, Princess whispered to her social worker: “I never thought this could happen; he’s rich and connected. I can’t believe we got out.”

Princess was rescued and was helped at the Preda Home for Children. Over the years we have rescued thousands of children and youths from the scourge of “sex tourism,” even as the sex industry continues to spread and grow with impunity.

This has all been exacerbated by the recent natural disasters in the Philippines. But with Yolanda last November 2013. it was the worst ever. I have been through ferocious typhoons during my 44 years in this Southeast Asian nation, but have never seen anything like the sheer savagery of Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda. After this super storm hit the Philippines, I flew to visit the northern towns on Cebu Island to assess the damage with two Preda staff members. Our goals were to deliver aid directly to the people who most needed it and, equally important, to protect orphaned children from would-be abductors and traffickers posing as relatives.

Horrible as the prospect of such exploitation is, it has been a cruel reality in times of natural disasters, and Haiyan was the most devastating typhoon known to humankind: as many as 6,500 or more were killed, countless injured and made homeless. And the orphaned children remain the most vulnerable. Their towns and villages and homes are gone, and their parents are dead. They face the threat of hunger, malnutrition, abduction and forced degradation in the sex trade and as slave labor.

These children need our attention and direct intervention to rescue them from child traffickers and pedophiles and Preda social workers have been training workers to help find them and give help.  Under the pretext of saving the children, traffickers abduct them and may sell them as “brides” to pedophiles, or earn hundreds of thousands of dollars by providing these children for illegal adoption, organ transplants, sexual abuse and exploitation in brothels and as forced labor.

Poverty often makes exploitation easy. Reggie is a clear example. The 17-year-old jobless youth and his family lived on the edge of severe poverty even before Typhoon Haiyan pushed them into absolute poverty and left them with nothing. In the midst of the chaos and destruction, human traffickers forced him and six other youth from Cebu into unpaid labor on a fishing boat, only to abandon them hungry and unpaid. Then, Reggie’s freedom and human rights were taken from him when local authorities jailed him for being a vagrant. He was recently rescued from illegal imprisonment and is recovering and rebuilding his life back in his home village. We can all continue to do more and to help the people in greatest need.

Though the work goes on, it never gets any easier to stomach.

Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.