Child traffickers back on the streets as lockdown measures ease

The sting operation was far from perfect, with one pimp getting cold feet after hearing murmurs that the planned sex party might be a setup.

But throwing caution to the wind – unwilling to forgo a payday – he sent 3 girls to meet the undercover clients at a hotel. 

This was a side-step from the pimp’s usual approach, where he’d collect payment in person. But it didn’t matter; one of the girls could lead operatives to his hideout where he waited with other trafficked victims. 

In total, 11 minors were rescued in a low-key trafficking bust in late June in Lower Bicutan, Taguig. And despite the satisfaction of strapping handcuffs on two suspected pimps, a sad, inevitable reality hit home for those involved in the operation: Metro Manila’s seedy child sex trade is once again picking up pace. 

Hamstrung by lockdowns and quarantine measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual abusers and pimps had pivoted heavily toward online mediums in recent months, with some reports revealing Twitter users peddling videos of minors performing sexual acts for between P100 and P500. 

But as Metro Manila’s lockdown measures ease, street pimps trafficking minors for sex are resurfacing and wasting no time recouping losses from their COVID-induced slump. 

“Normal service is certainly starting to resume for child traffickers. They’ve gone straight back to work, sending their victims to meet clients at hotels, condos, or other underground locations,” said Stephen*, an undercover operative with Destiny Rescue, an NGO dedicated to liberating trafficking victims, who led the sting operation in Taguig alongside barangay officials and police.

“Since the switch to GCQ (general community quarantine), we’ve been tracking an average of two cases per week, with a backlog of at least 20 trafficking cases pending. These are scattered all over the Metro,” he said.

“Our caseload is really no surprise. Even though restrictions aren’t fully relaxed, some pimps are very clever and find ways to weave around city or barangay ordinances and laws. Some even use falsified documentation,” he added. 

In the Philippines, pimps will sell minors – predominantly girls aged between 13 and 17 – for up to P5,000 each. Although specific data on child protitution is vague, the United Nations estimates there are currently over 60,000 children trapped in exploitation across the country.

And while reported spikes in online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) have received heavy news coverage during the pandemic, Stephen says the commercial, physical sale of child prostitutes remains just as rampant. 

"There's so much still happening in the streets beyond the cyber realm, and communities need to be aware," he said. 

“Plenty of pimps already have a network of clients they serviced regularly before the pandemic, so they don’t always need to go online to start making money again. Others know their digital footprint could ultimately come back to haunt them, so they’ll heavily limit their time selling or procuring children on the internet,” he added. 

Stephen said that although traditional trafficking hotspots like KTV bars and massage parlors are closed, many pimps are still operating in a covert capacity within their old venues. 

Poverty is generally regarded as the primary catalyst for child prostitution. Many children are forced by family members or close friends into the sex trade, due to a lack of sustainable livelihood options in slum and urban poor communities. 

And despite the Philippines being the only country in Southeast Asia ranked tier 1 in the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, shortfalls in curbing instances of exploitation are regularly aired by advocacy and NGO circles. 

Jenna Serrano of ECPAT Philippines, a global network of civil society organizations that works to end the sexual exploitation of children, says weak implementation of laws at the local level is one of the biggest challenges.

“We have robust laws on children's protection against sexual exploitation – including Republic Act 7610, RA 9208, RA 9775 – but these are rarely implemented properly. Most child protection mechanisms and structures in the community level are not functional,” she said.

She added that a “culture of silence” is widespread, with community members noticing suspicious cases in their areas but choosing to turn a blind eye or resorting to victim blaming.

“That same culture also pervades our tourism industry, and better policies around child protection should be considered in preparation for the reopening of businesses in the months ahead” she said. 

Serrano cited Bohol’s Provincial Tourism Child Protection Ordinance enacted in 2017 as a best practice model. It mandates tourism establishments to train staff in responding to suspicious situations. 

Compounding troubles for victims, the ongoing pandemic continues to stretch the capacity of many government agencies, including the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

“Most resources and personnel are assigned for the COVID-relief efforts. While the past couple of weeks have been better, at some points we have struggled to source social workers for operations to rescue victims,” said Stephen, the undercover operative with Destiny Rescue.  

“It’s not their fault at all. Agencies are just spread so thinly at the moment, and the pandemic is an unfortunate set of circumstances for everyone in the social welfare space,” he said. “Regardless, as long as minors are being forced to work on the streets at 2 am, we’ll be there too.” – Rappler.com 

*Names have been changed to protect their identity. 

To report cases of trafficking and child exploitation, the following may be contacted:

For more information on ECPAT Philippines and Destiny Rescue: