As of 2019, there is an estimated 2.2 million Overseas Filipino Workers based on the Survey of Overseas Filipinos conducted in the same year. While they are celebrated for their important contribution both to the Philippine economy and to their respective families and communities, equally worthy of attention is their plight as migrant workers subject to abuse and many other vulnerabilities while away from their home.
As part of The Asia Foundation – Ateneo de Naga University Legal Aid and Clinical Legal Education Project, the Ignatian Legal Apostolate Office (ILAO) worked with the International Pro Bono Alliance (IPBA) to assist the Philippine Embassy in Damascus in helping victims of Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in Syria, most of which are Filipino migrant workers. In a span of four months, twenty-four ILAO law student practitioner (LSPs) interviewed thirteen TIP victims via face-to-face video conferencing and prepared their judicial affidavits. When the migrant workers came home to the Philippines, their affidavits were ready for use by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in filing cases against the illegal recruiters and those involved in TIP. As of June 26, 2021 all the TIP victims housed at the Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC) Shelter of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, Syria are now back at home in the Philippines.
ADNU attended the Migrant Workers’ Desk webinar conducted by IPBA in 2020, which was the precursor to the project with the Philippine Embassy in Damascus and the POEA. In establishing its own migrant worker’s desk, ADNU sought the assistance of IPBA, which then connected it to government agencies for training on illegal recruitment and human trafficking case build up for the fourth-year law students of ADNU and LSPs of ILAO. The 8-lecture webinar held on March 6, 2021 featured speakers from the POEA, the Department of Justice, Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, Bureau of Immigration, and the Philippine Embassy to Damascus, Syria to name a few. This webinar capacitated the LSPs to conduct the interviews with the migrant workers. On March 19, 2021, the LSPs of ILAO took their oath as certified practitioners. Their engagement with the Philippine Embassy in Damascus was their opening salvo as certified LSPs.
“It is experiential learning at its best. As future Ignatian servant lawyers, they always have the responsibility to fashion a future that promotes and protects human rights – A future that strengthens the rule of law and a future that gives all access to legal aid. I believe this (activity) is one way to ensure that future.” In a post-activity conversation with her colleagues in the legal aid community, ILAO Law Clinic Director, Atty. Ma. Carmela Francia T. Peña emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for law students to apply what they learn in their law classes to cases with real consequence to real people. This way, the students do not just learn the law, but more importantly, develop their character as servant-lawyers.
The Migrant Workers Desk is a welcome addition to the two other desks ILAO is currently operating – the jail decongestion and environmental desks. ADNU, through ILAO, wants to provide its student a wide spectrum of choices. The establishment of the migrant workers desk and the partnership with IPBA through the referral network system opened opportunities for their students not only to aid the community on pressing legal issues such as trafficking in persons, but also to learn more about the law, imbibe important skills for practice, gain strength in character, and imbibe the values that the law school espouses. In preparation for the interviews, the LSPs did a review on international law and conflicts of law. They were also taught on how to draft judicial affidavits through their CLEP course – Practice Court 2. These were complemented by the webinar training conducted by IPBA which included the conduct of interviews that are gender sensitive and with trauma-informed care approach as the victims were primarily women and OFWs who came from vulnerable sectors.
Moving forward, ILAO envisions growth in the migrant worker’s desk. Apart from the apparent need to assist OFWs with their legal woes and the deluge of TIP cases as reported by POEA and the Philippine embassies in different parts of the world, this pioneering endeavor reveals the potential of law clinics to meet such demand. This initiative built a momentum for ILAO, IPBA, and the government offices involved as they are now planning to expand the initiative to Dubai, U.A.E. While they are confident that ILAO is equipped to take this on, in terms of the skills of the LSPs and the institutions’ technological capabilities, they acknowledge the great potential in expanding the network of law clinics with migrant workers’ desks. Atty. Peña said that looping law clinics in the region, like a consortium of migrant workers desk, can further develop this into a sustained effort. She emphasized the strength in a good network, not just of law clinics able to assist, but also with government offices mandated to support migrant workers such as those ILAO worked with on this project. Through the partnership of The Asia Foundation with law schools through the Strengthening Rule of Law through Legal Aid Clinics in the Philippines and the expansion of the law clinic referral network system, there is promise in working towards a more accessibility of legal aid service to the Filipino people, here and abroad.
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