The boy is 16 years old, and law enforcement officers believe he’s being sexually exploited by foreigners over the internet – abuse that seems to have been going on for years. He lives in the Philippines, and they know exactly where, right down to the house where he eats and sleeps and logs online. They have a pretty clear picture of what his abusers are doing to him, and they are worried about what is likely to happen if they don’t get him out fast.
This would normally be the part of the story where a rescue occurs. But the National Bureau of Investigation – a government agency under the Department of Justice – says it is unable to act. Their agents are prepped to approach the teenager, to speak with his family and swiftly remove him from further harm’s way. What they don’t know is what to do with him after that. Government authorities have told them that all of the children’s shelters in Manila are full due to the coronavirus pandemic. Children’s shelters say that no government authorities have reached out to them to ask.
And so the 16-year-old is abandoned to his abusers: unaware of the increasingly frantic dispute over his safety taking place via email and video call across the city, or that anyone is looking out for him at all.
As the rate of Covid-19 infections surpasses 44,000 across the Philippines, the impact of President Rodrigo Duterte’s military-enforced safety protocols is becoming increasingly apparent among the country’s most vulnerable. More than seven million people are currently out of work, and schools remain closed.
In June, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) renewed their call for an “on-the-ground independent, impartial investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines” including police violence during the quarantine, while child rights organisations such as Save the Children, the International Justice Mission and Unicef have been warning of a surge in the online sexual exploitation of Filipino children since the outbreak began. Research shows that girls are the most at risk – a study released by the IJM in May found 86 per cent of victims were female – but boys are frequently targeted too.
Operating at half capacity since COVID-19 started
But despite the need for comprehensive child protection services during the pandemic, many children’s shelters and safe houses either run or supported by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) have been operating at half capacity since the outbreak of the virus, with limited space for girls and boys in urgent need of somewhere to stay.
Newcomers are expected to spend 14 days in quarantine to reduce the risk of spreading infection: meaning that accommodating an extra child is no longer a matter of squeezing a mattress into a dormitory and making do. Accepting at-risk children shouldn’t be impossible, shelter staff members say, but it has become unofficial policy to keep their doors closed.
Where children who are being exploited should go during Covid-19, nobody seems to know. Chief Janet Francisco heads the National Bureau of Investigation’s anti-human trafficking division in Manila, and is overseeing the case involving the 16-year-old boy. She says the demand for children’s shelters will only increase as rates of poverty and exploitation climb. “We’re really begging our Department of Social Welfare and Development to help us,” she says. “We need to rescue this boy. It’s one victim, but even one victim is a precious life, you know? I think it should be given priority.”
It is not unusual for cases of online sexual exploitation to be time consuming and complicated, involving months of undercover investigation and the painstaking gathering of evidence. But once a victim has been identified, agents move quickly to get them to safety. In seven years of work with the NBI, Chief Francisco says she has never had to delay rescuing a child for more than a couple of days. She’s known the location of this 16-year-old for more than two weeks.
But after initially receiving a response informing the NBI that their shelters in the country’s National Capital Region were full, the DSWD stopped responding to the bureau’s requests for help, Chief Francisco says.
The DSWD’s NCR office declined to comment.
The shortage of appropriate accommodation for vulnerable young people and trafficking survivors in the Philippines has been becoming increasingly obvious in recent years. According to the United States’ Trafficking In Persons Reports, the DSWD has identified 7,884 possible trafficking victims in the past five years – 15 per cent of whom were male – yet there are only 44 government-run residential care facilities across the country – a number that hasn’t increased since 2016.
Services typically directed at women and girls
Services for survivors of trafficking and exploitation in the Philippines are also typically directed at women and girls, a conscious decision that corresponds to the gender divide among those most at risk. Theoretically, a teenage boy should be accommodated in one of the Philippines’ 24 children’s facilities, but shelter staff say that they are a notoriously hard demographic to house. The older a boy gets, the more difficult it becomes. “Given the difference of OSEC survivors [very young, including infants, mixed sibling groups, older boys] with other victims of violence, very few shelters accommodate mixed sibling groups and older boys,” says Dolores Rubia, IJM Philippines National Aftercare Director. Of the 44 shelters, only one would accept a young man over the age of 18.
Now, as Covid-19 places both girls and boys of all ages at increased risk of abuse, many are questioning the DSWD’s commitment to resolving the issue.
Catherine Scerri is Deputy Director of Bahay Tuluyan, a non-profit organisation running four private – but government-accredited – shelters across the country, and accommodating over 70 vulnerable children and young people aged between three and 22 years old. The shelters have formally been in lockdown since the middle of March, which has meant not taking in any new residents, but she says that in emergency cases when children are in danger, the organisation wouldn’t turn them away.
As far as she’s aware, nobody at the DSWD has been in touch about case referrals – a lack of communication from the department that she says has been consistent since the start of the outbreak. Staff at three other private shelters in the National Capital Region said the same.
On the eve of the government-imposed lockdowns on March 16, Scerri and the other staff members at Bahay Tuluyan relocated all of the children living in their Manila shelter to a larger space in Laguna, a region to the south east of the capital. The original shelter has stood empty in the city centre ever since, designed to accommodate up to two dozen young people in need. Staffing the shelter would require energy and funding from the Philippine government, Scerri says, but if there was a real will to rescue children from abusive situations, it could definitely be done. “I don’t believe that [Covid-19] is an excuse to put everything on hold,” she says. “These are some of the most vulnerable kids and you can’t just bypass them because you’re being paranoid.”
Chief Francisco still isn’t sure what will happen to the 16 year old boy, although his situation weighs on her mind every day. But she is certain of one thing: there are many more girls and boys being exploited across the Philippines, and it’s the government’s responsibility to find them somewhere safe to stay.