(Last of two parts) :Trafficking Filipinos: Philippines becoming ‘incubator of scammers’
A mix of excitement and anxiety filled “Paulo” as he stepped off a cab at the departure area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) Terminal 3 on Oct. 4. He was flying to Thailand, his first trip out of the country.
Everything had happened so fast. It was only on Sept. 14 that he saw the Facebook post of recruiter Laisa Magallanes offering the job of a telemarketer in Mae Sot, a town in Thailand near the border with Myanmar, with a monthly pay equivalent to P47,514 plus 1% commission, and there he was at the airport three weeks later, just hours away from starting a new job and, possibly, a bright future.
After checking in, Paulo was told to proceed to the Bureau of Immigration (BI) counter for his exit stamp.
He was in line when he was jolted by a phone call from a woman—the escort that his recruiter had said would meet him at the airport terminal on the day of his departure—and she was angry with him for queuing at the BI counter. She tersely told him that he was departing as an airport employee, not as an overseas worker or tourist.
Paulo was then instructed to go down to the arrival area’s Bay 13. He was met by the escort’s assistant who handed him an ID pass showing him as an employee of an airport concessionaire as well as a new set of clothes, and asked for his passport.
“After that, I had a bad feeling and started to worry. So I texted Laisa that I wanted out. She berated me, and said I would have to pay for all the expenses she shouldered,” he said in a statement to the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality that opened an inquiry on Nov. 22 into the trafficking of Filipinos to Myanmar.
Agitated, Paulo pressed for the return of his passport. It was eventually handed back to him at a coffee shop outside the terminal, but only after the escort’s assistant had scribbled “VOID” on it. But he was surprised to note that his passport bore the BI exit stamp when he did not even reach the BI counter.
After getting a refund on his travel tax, he hurried out of the terminal to hail a cab. He was afraid for his life, and he ignored the advice of airport tourism personnel that he report what had happened to the airport police.
“In the next few days, I learned of the plan to bring us to Myanmar. I also learned that many reached Myanmar without passing through immigration, but by disguising as staff,” he said.
‘Pastillas Scam Part 2’
Paulo’s case blew the lid off the possible involvement of Philippine immigration and airport personnel in the large-scale trafficking of mostly Asian nationals by criminal gangs running cryptocurrency fraud out of Myanmar and its neighboring countries.
“This is like ‘Pastillas Scam Part 2, but much worse and much more aggressive,’’ Sen. Risa Hontiveros said, referring to the 2020 scandal that exposed BI personnel’s acceptance of P10,000 payoffs to facilitate the entry of Chinese nationals to work in Philippine offshore gambling operations (Pogos).
“Are the airport security personnel involved? Are the BI or airport officials in the pockets of the illegal recruiters?” Hontiveros said.
The “pastillas” scheme saw peso bills rolled inside paper wrappers—much like the way the milk-based candies are wrapped—changing hands between the Pogo workers and immigration personnel.
The Office of the Ombudsman last year ordered 45 immigration officers and personnel dismissed in connection with the “pastillas scam,” which came to light during an inquiry by Hontiveros’ committee into crimes involving Pogos.
With this new trafficking scandal involving Filipinos, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to look into the issuance of security passes to potential victims at Philippine airports.
“We will not spare anybody in the investigation even if it includes employees of the BI,” Remulla was quoted as saying in reports.
As the BI finds itself in the spotlight anew, its spokesperson Dana Sandoval said the bureau was not ruling out the possibility that its own personnel were involved in the modus operandi.
“We are gathering information and evidence to identify the BI personnel who could be involved in the scheme,” Sandoval said.
There appear to be various ways by which unsuspecting Filipinos can be smoothly hustled out of the country.
Paulo said he met with Laisa Magallanes, his recruiter, at a cafe in Pasay City on Oct. 1. It was there that Magallanes said an escort would help him clear the BI counter on the day of his departure for a fee of P30,000, which would be deducted from his prospective salary.
“I didn’t quite understand it because I was traveling overseas for the first time,” he said.
True enough, on the day of his departure, the escort’s assistant met him at Naia Terminal 3 and handed him his passport so he could check in for his AirAsia flight. After check-in, he was told by the airline staff to proceed to the BI counter.
He was eventually diverted from the BI counter to the bay section of the arrival area, where he was issued a fake airport pass and new clothes. But he decided to back out.
Other recruiters had other ways of going around otherwise tough immigration rules.
“Rita,” one of the 12 Filipinos rescued from the clutches of the Chinese syndicate in Myanmar, was prepped early on by her recruiter to pass herself off as a tourist to Thailand by carrying a round-trip ticket with an open booking.
“They also booked us at a hotel for two days so that the immigration officer will see that we’re traveling as tourists,’’ she said in a joint briefing with Hontiveros after the latter opened an inquiry into the trafficking of Filipinos to Myanmar.
It was in Myanmar, Rita said, that she learned that if any of the Filipino recruits encountered any problem at the BI counter, they should be quick to insert money bills amounting to P10,000 or P20,000 in their passport before presenting it to immigration personnel.
“So if before, there is an inbound padulas (payoff) of P10,000, there’s also an outbound padulas of P10,000,’’ Hontiveros said.
Like other Filipino recruits before them, both Paulo and Rita found the Facebook announcement on the Thailand job with perks too enticing to pass up: no placement fee, no hidden charges, all expenses provided by the company, 2 days off a month, free food, stay in a condominium, birthday allowance.
For Paulo, it was Magallanes’ own FB page, but for Rita and the rest of the 11 rescued Filipinos, it was the “POGO SECRET FILES” FB page.
“If you apply today, you’ll get your ticket tomorrow. You just wait for your flight, Rita said. However, she added, her recruiter demanded an “assurance fee” of P10,000 to P20,000 for the processing of her travel documents.
Unlike Paulo, she saw her recruiter—a certain Len—only during a video call, her face partly covered by a mask.
Said Hontiveros: “One of the most sinister of the FB pages, and probably there are more like it, is called POGO SECRET FILES. This is a private page and this means that there’s an administrator who vets the members. It’s an extra layer for the authorities who want to crack this modus.’’
The senator called on the NBI and Philippine National Police (PNP) to go after the administrators and owners of the Facebook pages, as well as the Telegram groups “that are part of the syndicate’s operations.”
CoverStory tried but failed to reach Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople for comment. Last Nov. 24, the government-run Philippine Information Agency reported Ople as saying that her department was working with the PNP’s Women and Children Protection Center in documenting the testimony of the victims for the filing of charges against their traffickers and recruiters.
“Sen. Risa Hontiveros is correct when she said in her press conference, that these Pogo-type of operations in Myanmar and in other parts of Asia as well, do operate and are luring Filipinos to work there with promises of a six-month contract and a high salary,” she said.
“The operation of the Chinese syndicates is a bit sleek, and I will not be surprised if there are syndicates also operating in remote areas here in the Philippines,” she added.
Last August, the government banned the deployment of Filipino workers to Myanmar in view of the civil unrest and the rising incidence of illegal recruitment and human trafficking there.