I thought I would break from tradition and tell you a rather unusual Christmas story, by the young girl who was lost and then found. It occurred during my recent fact-finding trip to Asia in relation to Human Trafficking.
Being a parliamentarian with one of the highest voting records, it is extremely rare that I would miss one day at Parliament, let alone five, but that is exactly what I did at the end of November. I am the Co-Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and at the Conservative Party conference, I was approached by a gentleman from the Love146 charity. This charity specialises in aftercare for trafficked girls who’ve suffered sexual slavery and their re-integration into society – an issue that is sadly overlooked here in the UK.
My ambition and the group’s ambition is to stop human trafficking altogether, until this is achieved we must look after the victims. They first must be rescued, given secure safe accommodation and then helped back into society.
Love146 has established a safe home in Manila, Philippines. This safe home was established to take care of girls who had been trafficked and to give them enough confidence and self belief to re-integrate them back into society and, most importantly, make sure they will not be re-trafficked. With no project like this in the UK, I was invited out to the Philippines to see if the UK could adopt a similar project like this for the trafficked victims in the UK. (The cost of my trip was not funded by British taxpayers, it was partly paid for by the charity and partly paid for by myself.)
However, before arriving in the Philippines I took a brief detour to Shanghai, China. As we are all aware, China is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This was very apparent on arrival, with skyscrapers galore and transport infrastructure that would do any modern day city proud. However, the reason for going there was to see the darker and less known about side of China, their Human Trafficking issues. Trafficking is a huge issue in China and I went to see Katherine Dixon, the British Consul (Political, Economic & Press) to Shanghai.
I was told that during a year, just to the UK from the Shanghai area, there are 60,000 visa applications; this is fundamentally where the trafficking occurs, in particular on student visas. The immigration office in Shanghai is doing a fantastic job. They described one scenario in which a businessman who travelled a great deal was applying for visas for women who had never travelled before to work within his office. The immigration officers noticed this anomaly and informed the Chinese authorities. Here the Chinese investigated and found the man to be trafficking these women, and he was later sentenced to 10 years on the charge of trafficking. I believe this is vital that the border control is aware of a situation and act upon a scenario that looks suspicious. This is very important in the prevention of trafficking which I believe will help eradicate the problem of human trafficking.
After finishing in Shanghai it was off to Manila in the Philippines. I was met by Matt Stephens, a board member in the UK for Love146, and the following day I met with the other representatives of the charity, Steve Martin the CEO and Paul Morin, Vice President of Development. The plan for the day was to go to the round home that they had created and see firstly, if it worked and secondly to see if something like this could be brought to the UK.
The location of the safe home is kept a secret, in order to protect the girls, an issue they are very concerned about. Upon arriving we were met with a large gate and a concrete wall that spanned around the entire circumference of the round home plot. When the gates opened and we were let out of the van we went to a small security office, which checked all of our identification. The first thing that struck me about this though was the fact that all the security guards were women. Once we had finished with all the security checks we went in to the main area where we were greeted by 12 smiley happy young girls, who broke out in song to welcome us. To have heard these girls’ stories before coming out, on how they were sexually exploited, and now seeing them happy and singing brought a tear to my eye.
Once we had been delightfully welcomed to the round home we were then given a tour of the facility. It is set in the most serene and peaceful area in which they have well maintained gardens, a tree house – which is used for private one-to-one sessions with the psychologist – and a volleyball court, which became an instrument of an embarrassing defeat later on in the day to a handful of young girls.
After being shown the facilities we met with Dr Gundelina Velazco, who is the director of Love146 aftercare and devised and manages the programme. She explained how everything from the colour scheme to the shape of the home to the fact that all rooms face a Japanese garden have psychological impacts on the children, and all help build the children’s self esteem. It was a privilege to speak with Dr Velazco and she really portrayed the fact that this project is a real labour of love. During our discussions with Dr Velazco, I found it very comforting to find out that every girl who had been re-integrated has not been re-trafficked; this is fantastic and is such an important statistic.
After saying our goodbyes and thanking everyone for their hospitality, we set back to our hotel to get washed and changed as we had a reception to attend at the UK Embassy, which was put on in honour of Tim Gerrish of the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Unit (CEOP). It was a superb presentation by Tim and was very pleasing to see that the UK is taking note that there is a serious issue concerning Human Trafficking. There was also a great deal of people working within the Philippines on the issue of Human Trafficking, who had some incredibly valuable insights into how they are trying to resolve the issue.
The next day was a nice early start as we were heading off to Cebu, which was just over an hour’s plane journey away. In Cebu we met with the International Justice Mission, an NGO, who actively help the police in discovering victims of trafficking and also help place trafficked victims in aftercare facilities. What impressed me with this organisation was the co-operation between the state and the NGO who had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Social Welfare and Development. They have helped set up a scheme called ‘her room’; once the girls have been identified as victims of trafficking they are placed in safe houses then re-integrated back in to society. This I believe is a very good step. However, the aftercare facilities unfortunately do not prevent to the same extent the possibility of these girls being re-trafficked that the service Love146 provides.
The next part of this trip I would find to be the most heart-warming and frankly enjoyable part of the trip. I went to a wedding between two 20 year olds, Angel and Jay R. Angel was a victim of sexual exploitation at the age of 17. She was promised a job in a department store in Manila but upon arriving she was taken to a brothel and forced to work as a prostitute, having to have sex with up to 30 men a day. Thankfully after a few months she was rescued and Love146 took her in to their round home. She was one of the first girls to enter the round home and whilst in there she was given the opportunity to regain her confidence and understand that what happened was not her fault. Once Angel and Dr Velazco both decided that Angel was able to leave the home, Angel decided she wanted to return home.
The ceremony was moving and for our benefit was conducted in English as well as their native Filipino. However, the most memorable part of the ceremony was when Angel was given the microphone and gave thanks to her parents, especially her blind mother. There was not a dry eye in the room and the love between the families was evident for everyone to see, knowing all that they had both been through and to end up at this point was just marvellous.
Once the wedding had finished I mingled and in a typical English manner by speaking louder and clearer, despite most of their impeccable English, I spoke with the guests, bridesmaids, groom and Angel herself. What struck me the most was that they were just normal children. They had endured so much and to be so happy and in particular for Angel to marry and trust in a man was just a pleasure to see. Love146 have to be commended for this. However the resilience of these children was overwhelming and I felt very privileged to have met these girls.
The next day was my final day in the Philippines and I took a flight back to Manila where a meeting with the Secretary of State for the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Corazon Juliano-Soliman, was set up. The meeting with the minister was a pleasure. She was incredibly knowledgeable on the subject and gave me some incredible helpful insights into how to try to tackle the problem of human trafficking.
After the meeting it was back to the airport for the flight home. I left with a heavy heart and feeling privileged that I had the opportunity to meet these incredible girls. It was credit to the work Love146 has been doing in the Philippines that these girls were so happy and have a real chance of life now. I have taken some vital knowledge and experiences back with me to the UK which I hope I can now use in the fight against human trafficking here in the UK.