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Short course, long-term solutions: A Diplomat’s Journey to Help Human Trafficking survivors

Australia Awards Short Course Alumna Vida Soraya Verzosa of the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs applies innovative GEDSI approach to consular work

vida

In June 2021, for the first time in a long time, the Philippine Embassy shelter in Syria was empty. Through the amazing efforts of their staff, a group of Filipino survivors of human trafficking from Syria arrived back in the Philippines. These repatriates, primarily women, were those who suffered from poor working conditions and abuse by their employers.

Behind the successful repatriation is an innovative approach to reducing survivor vulnerability developed by Filipino diplomat Vida Soraya Verzosa. This new approach was inspired by the Australia Awards Short Course on Gender, Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) Mainstreaming that she attended in June 2020.

Delivered online by the University of Queensland, the short course was designed to help participants incorporate gender, equality, disability and social inclusion in the policies, actions and operations of their respective agencies. An integral element of the course is the development of a re-entry action plan or REAP which allows participants to apply what they learned in their workplaces immediately.

Vida’s REAP included a legal training for DFA personnel who conduct the initial interaction with vulnerable individuals and victims, to better equip them in handling the legal aspects of cases. This included a needs assessment data-gathering workshop aimed at equipping the personnel on how to better understand the victims’ needs, and develop customised approaches to care, particularly for vulnerable individuals and families.

In the middle of implementing her REAP, Vida took over as Chargé d’Affaires at the Philippine Embassy in Syria, where she was Head of Post until January 2023, before moving to the Philippine Consulate General in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“It was almost serendipitous for me to suddenly be assigned to Syria and have the opportunity to apply what I learned in the Australia Awards course in a manner that significantly impacted the lives of Filipinas who were trafficked in Syria,” said Vida.

Facilitating effective access to justice

Vida was motivated to improve access to justice by Filipinos who were victimised by human trafficking, particularly the most vulnerable. According to Vida, not all DFA overseas posts have legal officers or retained legal counsel who can readily assist. She saw the need to increase the capacity of DFA personnel assigned to handle case referrals.

“DFA personnel at our overseas posts are the first line of defence, the first with face-to-face interactions with these women and other socially excluded persons, and the first to initiate the process of evidence-gathering and case build-up, for onward processing to law enforcement and justice agencies.”

Vida also produced a law journal article entitled The Syrian Model: International Legal Cooperation in Promoting a Collaborative Human Rights-Based Approach to Access to Justice and Combatting Trafficking in Persons that was distributed to DFA offices and foreign service posts that need legal empowerment resources.

“By providing them the legal empowerment tools to assist women migrant workers, including persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and other socially excluded people, more people can be saved and the DFA’s capacity to make an impact will exponentially grow,” said Vida.

Due to the success of Vida’s initiative, she was invited to share the positive outcomes of her short course with the Philippine Senate, where she received a commendation for her approach dubbed “The Syria Model” – because it was an innovation in the way the Philippine Embassy handled trafficking in person cases in Syria.

The innovation has led to filing of trafficking in persons cases, and subsequent prosecution of traffickers under Philippine law, including one of the most high-value criminal targets in Zamboanga, Mindanao.

“This was not just another online training or capacity-building workshop. The Australia Awards short course produced tangible results for the beneficiaries who were given access to justice and legal empowerment opportunities, both in Syria and in the Philippines,” said Vida.

Quality education amidst the pandemic

Vida fondly shared that distance learning worked for her and her classmates from across the Philippine government. “We felt it was a safe space to practice critical thinking and receive insights from our group facilitator. I enjoyed the balance of academic rigour and the laid-back approach to the Zoom discussions. This seems to be part of the uniqueness of an Australian education.”

Getting quality education during the pandemic is a feat worth celebrating, she shared. “Completing the course at a time when there was a global pandemic felt like a major accomplishment because those were extraordinary times to be studying.”

The Australia Awards short courses are tailored to address the specialised training needs of Philippine government agencies aligned with their priorities.

The online nature of the short course meant that Filipino diplomats posted across the globe could participate and earn an Australian education.

“My Australian education ultimately helped me accomplish major organisational outcomes. The entire experience added value to my life and the lives of all those we are serving in the course of our work as diplomats,” said Vida.

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