Typhoon Washi in the Philippines Increases Opportunities for Organized Crime and Terrorism

Posted: January 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:55 am

 Author: Andrew Guth,  PhD Candidate, George Mason University, School of Public Policy

Typhoon Washi devastated the Southern Philippines last month – especially Cagayan de Ora in the northern central region of Mindanao.  The Red Cross has confirmed 652 deaths and over 800 still missing.  Additionally, the Department of Social Welfare (DSWD) of the Philippines reported at least 35,000 displaced individuals.  The news recently got worse with a strain of rat fever that has now hit the region, infecting over 200 and killing eight.  Unfortunately, the impacts of the typhoon will most likely continue in ways that many overlook – namely increased human trafficking and terrorist activities.

First, looting and lack of law enforcement are commonly associated with natural disasters.  However, human trafficking tends to be overlooked or simply put as a low priority.  However, in highly prone human trafficking regions (such as Mindanao in the Southern Philippines) the human traffickers live in the villages hit by natural disasters.  They are constantly observing the nearby villages to see who is vulnerable and wait for an opportunity of weakness (such as a natural disaster).  When the opportunity presents itself, they approach their target.  Conversely, rescuers, international aid organizations, and military may take days to arrive at the disaster site.  This gives traffickers a huge head start to begin their process of trafficking.  Many times, the traffickers and their victims have departed by the time rescuers arrive.  Furthermore, if they are unable to leave due to lack of access routes, then once access routes are cleared for help to enter, the traffickers already have their victims and are ready leave before any appropriate processing stations are established.  Additionally, it is often the goal of rescuers to remove people from the disaster site, so there are few suitable check points preventing traffickers from removing their victims.

If one is on the ground during one of these disasters, one realizes the enormous advantage the traffickers have.  Families are split apart during the storm and traffickers use the desire of others to find family members to their advantage.  One common tactic of the traffickers is to find children who have lost their family (either because they were separated or the family died during the disaster) and lie to the child by telling them that they know where their parents are.  If any processing stations or check points have been established, the trafficker tells the child that if they do not do as they say then they will never see their parents again.  This is not to imply that they threaten the child directly, but instead tell the child that if they are questioned by anyone that the child needs to tell that person that the trafficker is their parent.  The trafficker may suggest to the child that the people asking questions are there to take the child away, and if that happens then the child will never see their parents again.  Since many traffickers are family friends or acquaintances the child trusts the trafficker and readily lies believing it is in their best interest.  There is little doubt that several of the 800 still missing are currently being human trafficked in other regions of the Philippines and perhaps abroad.

Second, many of the 20,000 soldiers stationed in Mindanao to fight Muslim insurgents are now being redirected to lead rescue operations in the typhoon disaster area.  Only weeks after this redirection and presumably easing of pressure on the insurgents, five high-level international terrorists have been confirmed on the island of Sulu in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).  These terrorists include Zulkifli bin Hir (who has a $5 million dollar reward offered for him) and Amin Baco from Malaysia, Abdullah Ali from Singapore, and Qayim and Sa’ad from Indonesia.  The concern is that this renewed and strengthened connection with the regional al-Quaida network will lead to increased funding and better training for local insurgents.

These are difficult issues that are hard to moderate, let alone solve.  However, it is apparent that a disaster area must be better secured (at least once rescuers arrive).  Also, better training of DSWD officers, military and law enforcement personnel, and international aid organizations about trafficking techniques need implementing.  Knowing that children may lie about who their parent is and other techniques can help decrease trafficking after a natural disaster.  As for the increase in insurgent connections, this will happen.  The decision of a society to redirect resources to help those in need and away from an insurgency is the correct decision.  However, the decision will most likely have other unfortunate consequences.  This author would not be surprised if there is increased terrorist activity in the region in the near future due to the redirection of military forces to Typhoon Washi.  Such activities could cost additional lives.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu