TACLOBAN CITY- Five minors, who were all victims of supertyphoon Yolanda, were rescued from possible child trafficking allegedly committed by four persons.
The minors, all girls whose ages ranged from 12 years old up to 16 years of age, were rescued by members of the city police and personnel of the regional office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) at the Tacloban Bus Terminal at Abucay District last April 11.
Arrested by the government authorities were Flora Rovira, 52, Gina Aquino, 42, Jose Morteno and Clarabelle Talampas Sabunga, 67, who was said to be wearing a nun’s habit during their arrest at around 9 a.m.
The suspects were now detained at the Tacloban City Lock-Up Jail while the minors were temporarily housed in a center for abused women and children managed by the City Social Welfare and Development Office of Tacloban.
They were charged for attempted child trafficking based on Republic Act 10364 or the “Expanded Anti-Trafficking Act of 2010”.
During an interview, the three women strongly denied that they are engaging into trafficking.
Sabunga, who identified herself as a “yoga sister,” and vice president of their group, said that their intention is only to help the minors.
“They were the ones who approached us to help them and their parents even agreed. They issued a parental consent, written in the vernacular. We never forced the children,” she said.
Rovira said that they have no other intention but to send the minors to school as they have expressed to them.
“Our only mistake was that we did not seek clearance from the DSWD. We overlooked that but we are not recruiter. We have helped other children go to school,” Rovira, who identified herself as the president of their organization said.
Aquino said that they are on mission to help poor people.
“If we are recruiters, we could have given money to the parents of the children which we did not do. In fact, we don’t have money as we depend only on financial assistance from our foreign donors. I am just a volunteer of the group believing on its mission which is to help people in misery,” she said.
The three, along with their sole male companion, identified themselves to belong to group they described as Baba Nam Kevalam which they said to be a group that is advocating yoga but on the side conduct several missions like relief and sending children from poor families to school.
During their arrest on April 11, the suspects, together the minors were on board the passenger bus CUL Bus and bound for Manila, said social worker Asther Dadulla.
The minors were from Barangay Osmeña in Marabut, a town in Samar severely hit by supertyphoon Yolanda on November 8, 2014.
Dadulla said that a passenger, who was also on board of the same passenger bus, learned that the alleged suspects were not relatives or known to the minors, right away informed the police whose station is located within the vicinity of the bus terminal.
She added that the informant, who was not identified by Dadulla, suspected that the minors could be possible victims of child trafficking.
And upon investigation at the police station, it was learned that the alleged suspects were indeed not known to the minor victims and they were just recruited and convinced to leave their village in Marabut with a promise that they would be send to school.
“We can really say that that there was an attempted child trafficking in this case because the alleged suspects were not known to the victims, who were all minors and there was an act of inducement, promising them to send them to school,” Dadulla said, when asked why the incident could fall into an act of child trafficking.
Dadulla said that the suspects identified to be part of the Baba Nam Kevalam are on a relief and research missions.
“It is not a charity organization. Their act of recruiting the minors is already a violation of their registration,” Dadulla said.
During the questioning, they presented a document purportedly showing their registration before the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with their address at #87 Malakas St., B6L8, Maharlika Homes, Pinyahan Quezon City. Rovira admitted that they only applied for a SEC registration on February of this year.
The group was said to have conducted a relief mission in Marabut last December, 2013 and later returned last April 6, bringing the minors along with them.
“And they said to be planning to return on May 6 and promised to bring more children to Manila to send them to school,” Dadulla said.
She added that the minors still have parents.
Marabut Councilor Ruben Alonzo, who chairs the town council’s peace and order committee, said that he was alarmed on the reported child trafficking incident on their town, still reeling from Yolanda’s wrath.
“This is really alarming if it is true. Our people could easily be persuaded with promises considering that we are still suffering from the hardships due to Yolanda,” Alonzo said.
He asked the DSWD to conduct a massive information drive in their town to avoid another incident.
Last February, 12 people from the town of Marabut, two of them minors, were also rescued from trafficking by the police authorities.
They were found to be working in a bakery in Angeles City. The suspects were later charged of human trafficking that resulted to forced labor. (JOEY A. GABIETA)