Young girls caught in "form of modern slavery" in Philippines

Irish priest Father Shay Cullen spoke to Moncrieff about the sex trade in the Philippines

Young girls caught in "form of modern slavery" in Philippines

File photo. Picture by: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Girls forced into the sex trade in the Philippines are experiencing a “form of modern slavery” and a “crime against humanity”, according to an Irish priest working in the country.

Tens of thousands of young girls are believed to be victims of human trafficking in the south-east Asian country.

Meanwhile, thousands of young men are finding themselves caught up in the bloody war against drugs initiated by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Father Shay Cullen - the founder and president of the People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance (PREDA) Foundation - spoke to Sean Moncrieff about the current situation in the Philippines.

On the subject of sex slavery, Fr Cullen observed: “It’s pretty widespread all over, in many of the towns and cities. We’re seeing a big influx of the international sex tourism business, and sad to say government officials are giving permits to the sex bars to operate. Many human traffickers are feeding young people into theses sex bars. Sex tourists [are] going there, from Ireland as well.”

He says that while the people abusing underage girls are breaking the law, authorities are doing little to counteract the problem.

He explained: “Those who are violating the law after going with minors, they can be susceptible to arrest - either to deportation or trial & jail if they are caught with minors [...] On occasion, there are cases - but generally they are ignoring it - and that’s [the] problem.”

He suggested that while many of the victims are 16 or 17 years of age, much younger children are also being abused. Many teenage girls, meanwhile, are being ‘actively recruited’ across the Philippines.

"Forever in bondage"

Fr Cullen told Sean: “The problem is the traffickers will offer money, a loan to the parents in the poor village, and offer a good job to their daughters. [They take] them into the city and now they’re bonded labour - they have to pay that debt.”

As well as the family debt, girls themselves are forced to pay for food and lodgings. Traffickers also get their victims addicted to drugs, driving the girls ever deeper into personal debt.

“They’re forever in bondage,” Fr Cullen noted. “It’s a form of modern slavery. It’s a crime against humanity.”

And what happens if the girls manage to escape? “Some are picked up by the pimps again, and they’re brought back to the sex bars,” Fr Cullen said. “Others are threatened, [told] that their sisters will be abused and raped.”

He stressed that these problems are not just a problem in the Philippines: “You have this in Europe. This is a big problem with young people being brought from Belarus, the Ukraine, from Romania. They’re brought into these mega brothels here in Europe.

“The global statistic is that one in every three girls is a victim of sexual abuse, even her in Ireland. Although I think it’s one in four here - we have an organisation here called One in Four. It just seems to be so common. The crime is secret, and people don’t know it. It’s going on in Ireland, in everywhere at this rate. In the Philippines there’s a lot more of it because of this rampant, open sex industry.”

"A human tragedy"

PREDA, which was founded in 1974, operates a shelter for young girls who have escaped or been rescued from the sex trade. In addition to helping them reunite with their families, the foundation also offers the young women 18 months of therapy.

Fr Cullen observed: “Many of them just have this lack of self-esteem, self-confidence. They see themselves as disposable, of [having] no future [...] This is a human tragedy.”

While much of PREDA’s work is focusing on dealing with the repercussions of the sex industry, they also work to rescue girls directly from - but this can be a very difficult process.

“The police protect these places,” Fr Cullen explained. “You can’t really get real evidence that there’s minors inside - and that’s the only reason that we could go inside and rescue them. We have to go to federal police - you can’t use local police - with social workers. It’s usually a big operation.”

He also discussed the ongoing drug war in the country, that has left thousands dead and drew widespread international condemnation. While police are responsible for many of the deaths, vigilantes - described by Fr Cullen as ‘paid assassins’ - are also involved in the crackdown.

He argued: “The big problem is that the rule of law has been laid aside. The police and these vigilantes now have a standing order to go and kill them. It’s a very dangerous and sad situation. We’re just hoping there’s a change in policy, and they will just back away from this.”