As a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and missionary in the Philippines for over 44 years, Father Shay Cullen has witnessed firsthand the risks that children face in the wake of a natural disaster. Now, he is warning that children orphaned by Typhoon Haiyan face a grave new danger: becoming victims of human trafficking.
Aid agencies estimate that up to 2 million children may be at increased risk for trafficking in the wake of the disaster.
Unprotected children can often become “the main victims of jackals who seize them for child abuse or human trafficking,” Cullen says. “It is a horrible prospect, but it is extremely realistic in the case of natural disasters. These children are in need of immediate attention, to be saved from the clutches of traffickers and pedophiles.”
Krista Armstrong, Save the Children's global media manager, explains that “Lone children in disasters are very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking,” adding that “the first few weeks of any disaster are really critical in terms of putting children at risk. We know this from previous experiences.”
Reverend Ron Davidson, President of Gleaning for the World, says that tragically child sex traffickers are often among the first on the ground in many countries following a natural disaster, arriving to exploit families facing a future without food and water.
“If they don't have these things, they've got to make that choice; of either selling their child or letting all of them die. That's not a decision I think any parent should ever have to make,” he says.
The risk is particularly great in the wake of a storm as severe as Typhoon Haiyan, with aid groups like the Red Cross and Save the Children estimating that the death toll may be close to 10,000, higher than the current numbers quoted by the government.
Throughout the years he has spent in the Philippines, Father Cullen says he has never seen anything like the destruction caused by the storm.
“I have been through ferocious typhoons during my 44 years in the Philippines but have never seen or experienced anything like this for the sheer savagery of this destructive force of nature,” he related. “The gigantic force of the wind churned and turned everything it could to flying debris, smashing and tearing at everything, ripping roofs apart and carrying the metal sheets, rafters and roofs into the sky with such force that even cinder block walls collapsed before the onslaught.”
In the wake of such a massive tragedy, he says, the risk of trafficking is heightened.
The priest explained that, “under the pretext of saving or taking care of children, traffickers kidnap them and sell them to pedophiles. Or they earn large sums of money by providing the children for illegal adoptions. Even worse, they introduce them into the world of prostitution, making them slaves of sexual exploitation.”
Edwin Horcas, a Save the Children worker who has just returned from Tacloban, offered a grave perspective on the situation.
“There are children scavenging for food all over the city,” he describes. “It is horrifying to see children huddling over the few remaining possessions they managed to salvage. I saw so many just staring blankly ahead. The situation appears overwhelming for them and they are traumatized by what they have been through.”
Father Cullen’s foundation, PREDA, is one of the groups working on the ground in the Philippines to protect children at risk and empower individuals in the wake of the tragedy.
He says he is grateful to see some rays of hope in the midst of the horror.
“We witnessed the resilience, courage and bravery of the many Filipinos that are rising above the tragedy,” he says, “We met [survivors] Anna and Jose in an evacuation center in Cebu. Jose is positive, hopeful and holding his new born baby that arrived during the evacuation flight. But Anna was sad and forlorn thinking of her missing father lost in Tacloban and likely dead. They put on a brave smile but underneath there was deep sadness. We discussed with officials the need to seek out unattached or orphaned children and document and register all especially orphaned children. We will send PREDA social workers there to continue this work in all the evacuation centers.”
Many organizations are facing challenges when it comes to finding and protecting the most at-risk children in the wake of the storm.
“The difficulty with this disaster is that it has affected such a huge region and identifying who is most vulnerable is very hard,” Krista Armstrong says. “There are still remote areas that haven't been reached, so we don't know how many orphans there are, or how many children are unaccompanied.”
World Vision says that 35,000 sponsored children are among those affected by the storm.
Josaias dela Cruz, World Vision national director in the Philippines, is appealing for a compassionate response. “Please continue to uphold in prayer our responding staff and the suffering people in the Visayas and other typhoon-stricken areas. Now is the time to join our hearts, extend our helping hands, and work together to rebuild and uplift our fellow people’s lives,” he says.
The following organizations are among the many groups working on the ground in the Philippines to protect at-risk children and offer relief to survivors of the typhoon.
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, and the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin recently returned from Turkey and the Syrian border, where she covered the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict. She can be contacted at Kristin@kristinwright.net.
Publication date: December 3, 2013