Exit denied: women losing the right to leave in the Philippines
The global campaign against trafficking has proved more powerful than the constitution in the Philippines
Public discussions following the murders of Asian massage workers in Atlanta have exposed the longstanding surveillance of Asian massage workers and the criminalisation of sex workers in the United States. These examples of state violence are connected to a global pattern of policing of migrant sex workers, often justified as anti-trafficking measures. They produce not only spectacular forms of violence, such as arrests, deportations, and death, but also curtail women workers’ freedom of movement and generate migrant vulnerabilities.
For a decade now, I have been researching the experiences of Filipino women who migrate to Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore to engage in sex work. They earn their income through hostess work, which involves entertaining men in nightlife venues such as bars and nightclubs. To earn more, many also provide sexual services. Some choose sex work abroad over low-wage jobs in the Philippines, including factory, service, and retail work. Others enter into it after being ‘aged out’ by local hiring practices that discriminate against women age 25 and over. As independent sex workers, they are not controlled by international ‘pimps’ and criminal syndicates. In other words, they are not trafficked persons.
Nevertheless, their migration has been restricted and their livelihoods imperilled by the Philippine government’s anti-trafficking policy of ‘offloading’ passengers suspected to be victims of human trafficking and illegal recruitment as well as suspected undocumented workers. Implemented in 2010 after the United States effectively pressured the Philippine government to enforce anti-trafficking measures, the ‘Guidelines on Departure Formalities for International-bound Passengers’ aim to prevent human trafficking by screening all international-bound Filipino travellers and empowering the Bureau of Immigration to suspend Filipinos’ constitutionally enshrined “right to travel” whenever there is a “reasonable detection of a trafficking situation”.
Restrained ‘for their own good’
Strict screening of international-bound Filipinos primarily focuses on those leaving the country as tourists, which is assumed to be the primary channel for illegal recruitment, human trafficking, and undocumented migration. Profiling is central to the monitoring of Filipino tourists, and their financial resources, current employment, levels of education, appearance, demeanour, and destinations are all closely scrutinised. Based on subjective assessment, immigration officers determine whether a Filipino traveller is a ‘bona fide’ tourist or someone traveling with a ‘doubtful’ intent. Those who fall in the latter category are not allowed to depart.
More than 45,000 Filipinos were barred from travel in 2015, 70% of whom were women.
Although the offloading guidelines appear gender-neutral, women leaving the country as tourists are far more likely to be blocked from international travel than men. More than 45,000 Filipinos were barred from travel in 2015, 70% of whom were women. This disproportionate offloading of female travellers is largely due to gender and class biases in emigration profiling. In an interview with a Bureau of Immigration officer, I was told that officers assess tourists’ financial ability to travel based on “how you look”, and that they target travellers who “look like a maid, even if you said you’re a tourist” and wear “cheap-looking blouse[s]”. This gendered image of the ‘dubious’ tourist illustrates how women from working-class backgrounds are seen as inherently suspicious in the eyes of the regulatory state. In addition, public perceptions of female travellers as more easily victimised helps justify the additional scrutiny and prompts officers to feel like they are ‘protecting’ women when they monitor and police their international travel plans.
Undocumented, and unprotected, by design
The offloading policy impacts sex workers because it forces them to choose between giving up and becoming undocumented migrants. Most Asian countries with thriving sex industries rely on the labour of migrants but do not offer work permits for sex work. In the past, many Filipino hostesses migrated as contract workers with entertainer visas to Japan. However, the global anti-trafficking campaign has drastically reduced such legal migration channels. In 2005, the US Department of State’s unsubstantiated identification of Filipino hostesses in Japan as the largest group of sex-trafficked persons resulted in a significant decline, from more than 80,000 in 2004 to less than 10,000 in 2006. In light of limited means for sex workers to legally migrate, most, including former hostesses in Japan, had no choice but to migrate as tourists to continue working abroad.
The Philippines’ anti-trafficking campaign has made migration more costly for sex workers, rendering those with limited financial means heavily indebted. To avoid being offloaded, many have sought the assistance of unlicensed migration brokers who charge exorbitant fees for posing as their sponsors and escorting them out of the country. Those with previous offloading records have also resorted to paying corrupt immigration officers in the Philippines as much as PHP50,000 (approximately $1,030) to help them to leave.
In its bid to ‘protect’ her, the Philippine government denied Claudia the opportunity to seek a livelihood and put the well-being of her family at risk.
Some resort to dangerous exit routes in their desperation to leave. This was the experience of Claudia (name changed), a single parent who had been a sex worker in Hong Kong. Claudia and her friend had obtained tourist visas to Oman and had hoped to find jobs there in the hotel industry. Worried that her previous offloading records would flag her at international airports, she and her friend decided to leave through the seaport of Zamboanga. They had planned to take a ferry to Sabah (Malaysia), where they expected to meet someone who would then guide them to Kuala Lumpur where they intended to take an international flight to Oman.
Claudia understood the risks involved in taking such a route. Nonetheless, she expressed an urgent need to migrate as her third child was about to enter college, which meant that she would be paying three college tuition fees all at the same time. Unbeknownst to Claudia and her friend, the Bureau of Immigration has also intensified its policing of southern seaports. They were stopped during an emigration inspection and offloaded. In its bid to ‘protect’ Filipino women from human trafficking, the Philippine government had denied Claudia the opportunity to seek a livelihood and put the well-being of her family at risk.
The offloading of Filipinos has established a dangerous precedent that affirms the state’s authority to restrict Filipinos’ right to freedom of movement. In 2011, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that “the exercise of one’s right to travel or freedom to move from one place to another as assured by the Constitution, is not absolute”; it can be suspended “in the interest of national security, public safety or public health”. Since then, the Philippine government has continued to exercise its power to restrict Filipino women’s right to travel in the interest of protecting the nation and the Filipino people. In 2020, for instance, it imposed a temporary migration ban on nurses to pre-emptively alleviate the potential shortage of healthcare workers during the pandemic.
In the two decades since it has assumed the role of a “global sheriff” in the fight against ‘modern-day slavery’, the United States has wielded vast influence on anti-trafficking policies abroad. As the experiences of migrant sex workers from the Philippines illustrate, these policies have disproportionately circumscribed the mobility of women workers, restricting both their emigration and immigration. As we continue to examine how anti-trafficking rhetoric produces and cloaks state violence, it is, therefore, crucial that we expand our lens beyond the borders of the United States. We must analyse how the global campaign to combat human trafficking has harmed women workers across the globe.
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