The Philippines’ ‘Heroes’ Trafficked to War-Torn Syria

The country’s new administration is doubling down on a long-standing policy of encouraging overseas work, but those who become trapped have little redress

The Philippines’ ‘Heroes’ Trafficked to War-Torn Syria
People sit in an outdoor waiting area in front of a monument to the “bagong bayani” or “modern heroes” at the Department of Migrant Workers in Manila. (Ylenia Gostoli)

On a suffocatingly humid morning in Manila, the Philippines’ sprawling capital, Lucy Cayamba is rushing to an appointment — one she can’t miss if she wants her case to be heard. It’s been nearly two years since she returned from Syria — where she ended up against her will, despite a ban on the deployment of migrant workers to the war-torn country.

Stressed about being 10 minutes late, the 43-year-old frantically texts her colleague Richieda Dioneda, one of the women waiting for her in front of the newly established Department of Migrant Workers (DMW). Dioneda and five others are workers and volunteers for a small grassroots organization, Sandigan, that has taken it upon itself to help formerly trafficked women recover and rebuild their lives upon their return to the Philippines.

Cayamba was one of 54 women who, between 2019 and 2021, sought help and shelter at the Philippine embassy in Damascus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than a decade in Syria, the pursuit of justice for what happened to her has consumed every single day of the life she has had to rebuild from scratch. That’s why she cannot be late for the appointment, even if the women are made to wait for more than an hour before one of them is granted a meeting with a low-ranking officer.

Finally out of the hellish Manila traffic, Cayamba joins the group in an outdoor waiting area in front of the migration office’s building, located right under the Manila Skyway — an elevated road that connects the various parts of the city of 14 million. Behind them, a commemorative wall celebrates the lives of the “bagong bayani” (“modern heroes”), a phrase popularized in Philippine culture to refer to Filipinos who migrate to provide a better future for the next generation. From nurses to seafarers and domestic workers, Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs, as they are referred to in common and official parlance, have been credited with lifting families out of poverty and playing a major role in supporting the country’s economy through their remittances.

The constant stream of people going in and out of the building reflects the scale of mass migration out of the Philippines: More than 1 million citizens travel abroad each year to work. The majority head to Gulf countries and around 60% are women.

Raising their voices to overcome the noise of the traffic, the women are discussing their strategy for the meeting they hope to obtain with the newly appointed head of the department, Secretary Hans Cacdac. Despite dozens of follow-up emails, they weren’t able to secure a hearing.

“But we don’t take no for an answer,” says Donieda, a youthful 42-year-old woman whose harrowing experience in Kuwait, where she was mistreated and then jailed as an undocumented migrant when she ran away, motivated her to get involved in the organization. Among the cases they are following up on is that of more than two dozen women who were trafficked to Syria in the last decade and who are now trying to rebuild their lives. Some are seeking redress from government officials and pursuing their traffickers.

Richieda Dioneda (center) and social workers from the Sandigan grassroots organization ahead of a meeting at the DMW in Manila. (Ylenia Gostoli)

Ever since returning to the Philippines in 2021, Cayamba has been sharing a damp, two-bedroom ground-floor apartment with her brother in a low-income “barangay,” or district, of Makati, one of Manila’s municipalities. Here, high-rise condos and gated communities quickly give way to crowded, rat-infested streets — a parallel city that lies below tangles of electricity cables.

The front door, always open, is right next to a sari-sari store, a hole-in-the-wall corner shop selling confectionery, canned food and homemade cakes. At the end of an unlit corridor, a large poster of the Virgin Mary stands out as it hangs on the last of several doors, from behind which the scent of fried onion and adobo marinade fills the air.

Before leaving for Syria, Cayamba used to live in Davao, the largest city in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, with her husband and three children. But upon returning 10 years later, her husband had remarried. She carved out a space for herself in the family-owned apartment.

Jobless and feeling stuck in an abusive relationship, Cayamba decided back in 2011 to start looking for work abroad. Following in the footsteps of millions of Filipinos whose remittances have powered the country’s economy for decades, she would send money back home, perhaps even buy a nice place with the savings as she had seen countless others do.

Outside the local government office in Davao, where she is applying for her new passport, she recounts meeting a man who offered direct contact with an agency in Manila that had dozens of job offers. It wasn’t long before she found herself in the capital, going through the necessary training with a government-registered agency and then accepting a job offer in Kuwait. The agency arranged for her papers and flight. But once at the airport in Kuwait City, she was informed she was to board another flight to Damascus, Syria, where war had recently broken out.

“I had a lot of orientation, training. I thought it was legal. But when I was in Kuwait, someone told me ‘you will go to Syria,’” she says. “I know there is a war in Syria, but I didn’t have a choice, I didn’t have money then. How can I go back to the Philippines? I didn’t have one peso on me.”

It took eight years of overwork, mistreatment, bad food and poor sleep before she decided enough was enough and sought help from the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years later, she finally made it back home, where everything had changed.

“My two youngest are not close to me, they barely remember me,” she says of her children, who live in Davao with her estranged husband — divorce is illegal in the Philippines. “But I am close to my eldest, I hope she will come and visit me soon,” she says of her first child, now in her early 20s. “Traveling to Mindanao is too expensive.”

These days, when she is not chasing down migration officials, Cayamba is attending rallies, or even organizing workshops in her neighborhood for people who are preparing to travel abroad, or for returning OFWs who are trying to navigate the complex system of financial reintegration support or filing claims against rogue agencies.

Ida Sidik and Maria Elisa Alcala finally arrive for lunch. Cayamba hasn’t seen them much since they left the Philippine Embassy in Damascus in 2021, but it’s clear they retain a sense of familiarity around each other. For more than a year, the three women shared a small dormitory room and a lot of grief at the embassy’s emergency shelter in Syria.

Around the time the pandemic hit, they all knocked on the door of the embassy looking for help. Cayamba, Sidik and Alcala remember being asked to leave their phones at reception, following the standard procedure for visitors The three women were, however, anything but dropping by.

They ended up remaining at the embassy for over a year, during which they say they were completely cut off from the outside world. The shelter, meant to be an emergency accommodation for Philippine nationals in distress, is located in the building’s basement. For the women, the time they spent there was equivalent to prison time — they were incommunicado with no information about their release.

“When I arrived at the embassy I thought the worst would be over,” says Ida, a 43-year-old mother of three children, now aged 19 to 21, from Cotabato, a city in the southern Mindanao island that for decades has been the heartland of a separatist insurgency. Sidik arrived at the embassy in January 2020 and was finally repatriated in April 2021. “I spent a year and three months there,” she recalls, “I called [my family] when I was quarantining in Manila.” At that point, she says, her family feared she was dead. “My mother even asked a fortuneteller for help to find me,” she says. “She and my children were so happy that I came home alive.”

During that year, the embassy shelter gradually filled up with more and more women desperate for help. They had been working in the homes of government and military officials, as well as wealthy businessmen. “There were two rooms, one wasn’t much bigger than this,” Cayamba says, extending her arms to cover the full length of the dining room, barely 2 meters by 3. A second bigger room accommodated most of the beds. “They only had maybe 20 beds, and we were more than 50 people,” she says. “So that two people slept in each bed. We stayed there like that, like sardines. Some people were sleeping on the floor.” But as more people arrived, the women — some of whom had become undocumented — had no choice but to wait for the promised repatriation.

In interviews with media at the time, embassy officials pointed out that there was a lockdown in Syria from March 2020 to September 2020, and that all processing of exit permits had ground to a halt. The airport resumed commercial flights in October 2020. But it wasn’t until some of the women managed to get their phones and broadcast on Facebook Live that news of their existence got out and repatriations began.

In May 2023, 26 of those women filed a complaint with the office of the ombudsman, which is mandated to investigate claims against government officials. They accuse Alex Lamadrid, the Charge d’Affaires in Syria at the time, and four other members of the embassy staff, of gross negligence and failure to protect their rights, according to the organization that helped them file the case, Migrante International. Some of the women, the organization says, also allege they were pressured by some of the staff to go back to work in Syria.

A woman in Aliaga, the Philippines, on a video call with her daughter who works abroad. (Ylenia Gostoli)

Cayamba turns out a bright white light in one corner of the living room and pulls some papers out of a drawer. Among them is a list of the salaries the 26 women are owed by their Syrian employers. Their unpaid salaries collectively amount to more than $120,000.

“[My employer] in Aleppo only paid me $200 a month. They said the other half was going to the agency,” says 47-year-old Alcala. In 2017, she left her hometown near Manila to help her three sons through higher education; she is also a single mother. Like many other Filipinos who migrate abroad, she chose to use the fastest and most economical intermediary, recommended by an acquaintance whom she believed she could trust. The informal “agent,” a woman she calls Ann, promised her a job in the Gulf. However, rather than assisting her in obtaining a work visa, she arranged for her to fly to the United Arab Emirates on a tourist visa.

After she arrived in Abu Dhabi, she had six different employers in an ordeal spanning several cities, throughout which she had no agency. A one-month tourist visa to the UAE on her passport, dated Nov. 19, 2017, is the only evidence she has.

After completing a two-week stint of work in Abu Dhabi, she was forcefully transferred to an employer in Dubai, enduring this period without receiving any salary. As her tourist visa approached its expiration, she confronted the stark reality of being unable to depart the country or seek assistance, fearing substantial fines or imprisonment. Consequently, when her traffickers orchestrated her relocation to Syria, she acquiesced.

In Syria, she found herself in the residence of a man she refers to as Maher for six months. Maher played a role in facilitating her employment and later arranged for her relocation to Aleppo, where she worked for a wealthy family for more than two years. “The reason why I lasted there is that Maher threatened to beat me and hurt me,” she says. “I just decided to stay with my employer in Aleppo instead of going back to Maher.”

It was only in Aleppo that she was finally paid $200 a month, half of the promised wage, which she says the employer would wire directly to her family. The minimum wage in the Philippines is currently $230 a month.“I never got enough food, sometimes I was given rotten food,” she says. “My employer said she could only pay me $200 because Maher took the other half. … After two years, my employer told me she’d already bought me and that I had to stay with her for six years. Then I decided to escape.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that before the war began, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 foreign domestic workers in Syria, with the majority coming from the Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

While Syria banned manpower agencies, they continued to operate underground, either “from a neighboring country or illegally within Syria,” according to an IOM report. Workers are normally asked to sign new contracts on arrival that annul any previous agreement they had with agencies back home.

While the exact number of Filipinos who have traveled to Syria since the war started remains unclear, available data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the 54 women whose cases have come to light may just be the tip of the iceberg. In 2021, the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines said it brought home 110 trafficked Filipinos from Syria. The Philippine Embassy in Damascus continued to repatriate women in 2023, according to its website, but did not respond to a request for further information and comment.

Of the four women who were trafficked with Sidik to Syria via Malaysia, only one eventually knocked on the embassy’s door. The fates of the others remain unknown to her. The youngest was 15.

Much like Alcala, Sidik embarked on her journey through informal channels when she encountered someone from her hometown offering expedited assistance in securing employment overseas. Soon after, she found herself on a flight bound for Malaysia. But upon arrival, she realized she had fallen into a trap. She recalls that she and four others were locked in what she calls a “hotel” near the airport for two weeks.

“One of the hotel staff would come and bring us food and then lock the door behind him,” she says. At this point, their passports were confiscated. “We didn’t want to go, but we didn’t have any choice,” she says. The group was taken from Malaysia to Kuwait, and from there to Damascus. most likely airport officials were paid off to get the group through security checks. “When I was asking for my salary, they just shouted at me. Once they threatened to kill me,” she says of her employer, a car dealer.

Of the three, Sidik is the only one who received the 50,000 Philippine pesos ($900) that the government allocates to victims of trafficking upon return — although even that is only a fraction of the wages that were never paid to her for over a year of work. All Cayamba and Alcala received upon return was 10,000 pesos as part of a package of “reintegration assistance” for distressed migrant workers. At least a dozen other returnees from Syria are in the same situation, nearly two years after coming back, according to the organizations assisting them.

New Lines attempted to make contact with government agencies including the DMW and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking over this case, but did not receive a response.

“Why doesn’t the government [create jobs] in factories? Give us factory work, we would go,” Cayamba says. “In order to work here in the Philippines, you need a lot of certifications, a lot of papers.” Alcala, who has been unemployed since coming back from Syria, agrees. “I am 47 now, it is impossible to find a job in the Philippines at my age,” she says.

The lack of job opportunities in the Philippines is the result of a deliberate policy that each successive government has embraced since it was first introduced in 1974, two years after then-President Ferdinand Marcos had declared martial law in the country.

Facing a huge bill in World Bank loans that led to austerity measures and high unemployment, Marcos issued a decree that began promoting and systematizing overseas work in what became known as the Philippines’ “labor export policy.” This eventually came at the expense of the country’s industrialization and the creation of local jobs.

By the time Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr — the son of the dictator who invented the policy — won the elections in May last year, he had promised to double down on it. Remittance inflows to the Philippines broke new records in 2022 by reaching $36.14 billion, or 8.9% of the country’s GDP — adding to the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

With international migration institutionalized, the Philippines has also come to be seen as a model country when it comes to regulating it. The Philippine government has licensing requirements for local recruiters and can blacklist those that commit violations.

The creation of the new Department of Migrant Workers to centralize all services aimed at OFWs — conceived during the previous Duterte administration, but which only recently received its first budget — is just the latest example of how successive governments have attempted to show their goodwill by cracking down on illegal recruiters, reforming the system and reinforcing protections for migrant workers.

The U.S. State Department considers the Philippines a tier-one country when it comes to fighting for the elimination of human trafficking. For eight consecutive years, it has met the minimum standards set out by the U.S. government on this, alongside 30 other countries, thanks to the significant resources and agencies it deploys.

“Some of the [Syria] victims have also filed cases against their traffickers,” says Joanna Conception, Philippines chairperson of Migrante, a global coalition of migrant workers that is also offering legal aid to some of the victims. “But the problem was, especially those who were recruited or trafficked as minors are not familiar with the law, they don’t know their rights, and did not really receive support from the Philippine government agencies for the filing of their cases,” she says, adding that some have also reported intimidation and harassment from individuals connected to their traffickers.

Tens of thousands of workers every year leave to work abroad on student and tourism visas — mostly to speed up the process, save processing costs or simply because they prefer to rely on word of mouth and acquaintances, particularly in close-knit rural communities.

“Recruitment agencies still commit violations, whether or not they have been licensed,” says Conception.“There are several who have been licensed for years and they have pending cases against them.”

“So even for migrant workers who have been fortunate enough to be assisted by lawyers or by organizations to file cases of labor violations or human trafficking … still, there are many challenges in their access to justice,” she adds. “Oftentimes the companies or agencies continue to operate.”

Many of the recruitment agencies offering job placement abroad are located in a district of Manila not far from the scenic Manila Bay. Almost an entire block is lined with advertisements for catering jobs in Saudi Arabia or domestic work in Qatar and Kuwait, as well as nursing and construction.

There is something for every aspiring overseas worker here, where dozens of people spill out of rundown offices, many holding folders. Two young girls who have come all the way from Mindanao say they have completed their training and are preparing to leave the following day for catering jobs in Saudi Arabia. They hold white T-shirts they will use as uniforms as well as a pile of paperwork for their visas and contracts.

Most agencies here advertise “POEA jobs” to reassure prospective workers they have been vetted by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which issues licenses to private employment agencies.

Located on the second floor of a grimy tower, an agency called HRHA Manpower International is a hub of activity, with about a dozen people in the open-plan office, both staff and candidates. This is the agency that hired Cayamba about 10 years ago.

The agency is indeed listed as licensed on the POEA website under the address where it is still currently located. And although it does not advertise jobs there, it was offering opportunities when this reporter visited in September. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

DMW Protection Bureau Director Geraldine Mendez, whose office is responsible for investigating and shutting down illegal recruiters, explains that, according to their monitoring system, “The recruitment agencies are required to submit reports of their deployed workers in case the deployed workers have any complaints or need any action.” If there is a complaint against a licensed agency, the department would normally take the victim’s statement. “Then there would be a hearing at the DMW or in a regional office where [the person] is resident,” she says. “We would be canceling the license of the agency and then, of course, blacklisting the employer.”

Critics, however, say the framework, whereby the government essentially relies on private agencies to self-regulate, is part of the problem. According to a senate communique, in 2016 the conviction rate for illegal recruitment cases in the Philippines was a dismal 5.3%. Rebecca Miller, head of the Asia section of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says that while the Philippines, with its long history of and reliance on migration, has worked a lot more than other countries on strengthening its anti-trafficking framework and promoting “safe migration,” challenges persist.

“Being able to collect that evidence that often sits in another country to then prosecute individuals or carry out investigations of operators in the Philippines can be incredibly challenging as it often requires cooperation with these countries,” she tells New Lines. “Even more generally, international legal cooperation in relation to trafficking cases is very few and far between.”

Ultimately, the closest observers of this phenomenon know that as long as there is an overreliance on migration to power the country’s economy and provide blue-collar jobs, and while migration for many is not a choice but the only viable option, “safe migration” isn’t possible.

According to Conception, the creation of the new DMW further institutionalizes the Philippines’ policy of exporting labor. The DMW “has continued the fast-tracking and marketing of Filipinos as cheap labor, and trying to find more markets,” Conception says. “It sends the message that the government doesn’t see this as temporary anymore, [and that it aims to] continue using migration as a strategy for development in the country.”

Back in the barangay in Makati, Cayamba and Dioneda have been granted use of a room at the local municipality building for what they call a “know your rights” workshop. They will be talking to former and prospective overseas workers about how to apply safely for jobs, what to avoid, and what to do if they need assistance abroad or upon return. Some of the people in the room have previous positive experiences, others are looking for help with ongoing exploitation cases. All are ready to leave at the first opportunity and make the “heroic” sacrifice of leaving their families behind in the hope the next generation won’t have to.

“The social media, the television, always say the OFWs, the domestic helper, is bayani,” says Cayamba. “But where is the word when the OFWs go to the government asking for help?”

Reporting was supported by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

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