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One priest's crusade against sex tourism in the Philippines

Rev. Shay Cullen's campaign against sex tourism epitomizes faltering efforts to combat the problem in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / August 18, 2011



Olongapo, Philippines

From his sprawling establishment overlooking Subic Bay, the Rev. Shay Cullen surveys a city that seems almost as subverted by the trafficking of women, many under age, as it was before the US shut down its naval base here nearly 20 years ago.

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The sailors who once flooded the streets on shore leave are no longer here, except on brief visits during military exercises, but the city has never lived down the reputation it got for the sex trade that flourished around what was America's biggest Naval base outside the US.

“Sex tourism is unchecked and trafficking is rampant,” says Mr. Cullen, a Columban priest from Ireland who’s been crusading since 1974 against what he sees as a “mafia-like” conspiracy by foreign men and Filipinos to exploit under-age victims. “The local government supports the sex industry, the prosecutors are mostly corrupt, and the judges too.”

Cullen seems like a latter-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills as he leads often fruitless manhunts for traffickers among the foreigners who come to this once-thriving base city 50 miles northwest of Manila.

His crusade epitomizes faltering efforts in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia to combat the trafficking of women, many in their teens, almost all from poor families living in squalor amid rising prices and fewer jobs. If the challenge appears hopeless, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of Cullen and others – dedicated, if nothing else, to raising awareness of the problem.

“We have a great deal of admiration for what they do,” says Andrey Sawchenko, director in the Philippines for the International Justice Mission, talking about the organization Cullen helped found, PREDA, an acronym for People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance. “It matters hugely to the women and girls they help. Our experience has been that PREDA has been really effective.”

Spurring prosecution

Mr. Sawchenko sees PREDA as having played a leading role in spurring on prosecution of cases of trafficking. As evidence, he cites removal of the Philippines last month from the State Department’s “watch list” of countries that are doing little or nothing about it.

The Philippines now has a “tier two” rating – recognition that at least it’s attempting to combat the problem – while Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia remain on the watch list. The Philippines got “the promotion,” as officials sometimes call it, after prosecutors won 29 convictions against traffickers in a 12-month period after having had only 30 convictions in the previous five years from 2005 to 2010, none the result of PREDA's activities.

Khrisna Avila, a consultant with the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, set up by the Department of Justice to combat the problem, acknowledges, however, that nearly 1,200 cases are still pending. The State Department’s latest country-by-country report on trafficking worldwide is severely critical despite the upgrade.

“Widespread corruption and an inefficient judicial system continue to pose very serious challenges to the successful prosecution of trafficking cases,” says the report. “Law enforcement officials’ complicity in human trafficking remains a pervasive problem in the Philippines, and corruption at all levels of government enables traffickers to prosper.”

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