MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES – Last week, the Philippine government ordered a major karaoke bar to permanently close its doors. A month earlier, IJM helped rescue 17 young women who had been trafficked there and sold for sex – the youngest was only 14 years old.
On August 22, an undercover rescue team arrived at the entertainment bar at 10:00 p.m. A large sign hanging outside the entrance dared people to come inside for a dance competition. Inside, men crowded around tables lining a long runway with a pole at the end. Smaller rooms were reserved for the customers who would pay to exploit the girls working at the bar.
Undercover agents with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) made a transaction with one of the bar managers. It seemed like any other exchange as money passed between hands and a girl was called for the nightmarish routine. But the transaction was actually a signal for the rescue team waiting nearby. And it was the beginning of freedom for the girls who had been routinely exploited inside the bar.
A team of officials from the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) and NBI anti-trafficking officers secured the bar as IJM staff and government social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development moved immediately to the girls and young women – helping them exit the bar, reassuring them that they were not in any trouble.
No matter the size or prestige of the bar, the Philippines' anti-trafficking law applies. IJM lawyer Lisa Garcia says the bar closure tells other establishments where girls are trafficked that "we will not leave any stone unturned."
Back at the NBI headquarters, the girls and women answered questions that confirmed the reports of abuse documented by IJM's investigators. Of the 17 trafficking survivors, ten were minors. One of IJM's lawyers, Lisa Garcia, stayed at the police station with the survivors as the night turned to morning. "There is still a lot do, with the legal case and providing aftercare for the rescued girls," Lisa said, "but one thing is certain: healing begins now."
That night, police arrested the suspects, and nine will face trafficking charges when the trial begins. The NBI signed a petition asking the Department of Labor and Employment to order the bar permanently closed, to ensure no more girls will be exploited.
On September 19, local media and other bystanders watched as government agents and IJM staff arrived at the bar. The brightly painted sign with the bar's name above the door had been altered and decorations had been changed – the bar's attempt to evade the closure order. But the ruse did not work, and another sign was soon nailed to the door. This sign plainly states that the bar has been ordered "permanently closed," citing a Philippine law that prohibits employment of minors for commercial sexual exploitation.
IJM lawyer Lisa Garcia said the physical sign now hanging outside the high-profile entertainment bar and the padlock on the door is significant because "it shows everyone that we are making a stand against their illegal activities." No matter the size or prestige of the bar, the Philippines' anti-trafficking law applies, and she says the bar closure tells other establishments where girls are trafficked that "we will not leave any stone unturned."