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People Smuggler 'Wanted to Help' Filipinos

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In 2011, Iluminada Panabe was found guilty of human smuggling and sentenced to six years in prison.
According to the police, Panabe had brought more than 800 Filipinos into Europe via Denmark and by Europol estimates had made as much as 10 million euros during her years of operation. Image by Tor Birk Trads. Denmark, 2016.

In 2011, Panabe was found guilty of human smuggling and sentenced to six years in prison.
According to the police, Panabe had brought more than 800 Filipinos into Europe via Denmark and by Europol estimates had made as much as 10 million euros during her years of operation. Image by Tor Birk Trads. Denmark, 2016.

As with many police busts, it all started with a suspicion and a snitch.

The increasing number of Filipinos coming to Denmark from the Philippines was the first thing to trip the alarm.

"The Danish alien service saw and reported some suspicious activities regarding Filipinos living in Denmark often having family members visit from the homeland. These visits were always from a new family member," Danish police inspector Michael Kjeldgaard told DW.

Then came an anonymous tip that a Filipino woman, Iluminada Panabe, was smuggling people from the Philippines to Europe using Denmark as a gateway.

That was enough to start an investigation into the activities of DenPhil Travel and Tours, a travel agency that Panabe was running from Thisted, northern Denmark, with operations in Quezon City in the Philippines.

In 2011, Panabe was found guilty of human smuggling and sentenced to six years in prison.

According to the police, Panabe had brought more than 800 Filipinos into Europe via Denmark. The Danish police were unsuccessful in tracking down the immigrants, but that was not the point.

"It was not our intention to prosecute them. We looked at them as victims. We wanted to interview them to know more about Panabe's operations and who her helpers were," explained Kjeldgaard.

Europol estimated that the business could have made as much as 10 million euros ($10.7 million).

'Reuniting families'

DW spoke to Panabe in her small, sparse but tastefully decorated apartment in northern Denmark. She had served three years of her six-year sentence and had been released on probation. While in jail, she took a course in event management and fundraising. Now she was working on finishing her master's degree in business administration.

The Danish penal system is considered one of the most humane in the world, which Panabe said she experienced. "The system is so fair. It gives you every chance to change. You would be ashamed to do something wrong again," she said.

As she remembers it, on that Thursday when the police came with a warrant for her arrest, she surrendered without protest or fanfare. Panabe did not plead innocence, but today over coffee and against the light drizzle that blanketed the lush green fields of rural Denmark, Panabe asked for understanding.

The 46-year-old was both reflective and forward-looking, anxious to clear her conscience. She insisted that her business operations served the purpose of reuniting Filipino families separated by labor migration.

On the surface, DenPhil was selling package tours to Europe, but police investigations revealed that the agency was a front for a simple but effective set-up of matching Filipino clients in the Philippines to Filipinos living in Denmark. Accomplices in Denmark would pose as relatives and sponsor a family visit in exchange for cellphones, airplane tickets to a chosen destination or outright cash.

Clients paid a "package rate" between 7,400 and 9,300 euros to orchestrate these family visits and secure a Schengen visa and entry into 26 European countries, where they would quietly live and work under the radar as undocumented migrants.

Despite the money trail and the deck of falsified documents, her lawyer argued that Panabe was well within the bounds of the business of issuing her clients visas to Europe. What her clients did once they got to Europe was no longer her concern.

Panabe's self-defense was more complex.

"There are so many Filipinos in France and Italy who have no [legal] papers. They stay there, work there for so long without seeing their families. I wanted to help them," said Panabe.

Immigration limbo

The Philippines is one of the largest labor-exporting countries in the world, with approximately 10 million Filipinos living overseas as immigrants or as guest workers. Years of state-sponsored labor migration brings in an estimated 23 billion euros to the economy but comes with a social cost of years of separation. While there are no official estimates, extrapolations based on the number of migrant workers abroad indicate that there are about 2.56 million Filipino children of whom one or both parents live abroad.

Europe's higher wages beckon, but with few options to migrate legally, Filipinos smuggle themselves to Europe with the help of someone like Panabe who can circumvent the paperwork.

The Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), a government office in Manila that oversees migrant welfare and development, estimated that there were more than 860,000 Filipinos living in Europe as of 2013. In France, where Panabe said most of her clients wanted to go, the CFO estimated that as many as 80 percent of the 48,000 Filipinos were "irregular" or undocumented.

As undocumented migrants, these Filipinos exist in a sort of immigration limbo where they discreetly live and work in their host country but can't go back home. Doing so would mean not being able to return to Europe - and not recovering the estimated $10,000 it took to get there.

Self-ascribed altruism

Panabe, a native of the Kalinga mountain province in the Philippines, came to Denmark some 15 years ago as the bride of a Danish man she met while he was on holiday in the Philippines. She, like many other Filipino migrants, fled from grinding poverty in the hopes of finding opportunity abroad.

Living in Denmark exposed Panabe to the other side of migration. Underneath the shimmer and perceived glamour of life abroad, there was the pain of being separated from family members and the aching possibility of never being with them again.

Panabe attributes her self-ascribed altruism to this realization. She insists that her business operations helped reunite families and that she used her business earnings to establish the IDP Foundation, a charity organization bearing her initials, to send poor but deserving students from her province to school.

When she was arrested, Panabe said her immediate thought was her scholars and her clients, especially those who had already made a down payment and whose travel papers were being processed.

"What would happen to them?" is a question she said she asked herself many times.

Back in the Philippines, DW tried to find out, tracking down one of the students who appeared in a video thanking the IDP Foundation for its financial assistance.

"This is a big help to me because my parents don't have money," the teenage boy told DW via email. The boy, who asked not to be named, said that he was promised a 90-euro monthly stipend as an IDP scholar, but alleged that he never received any financial support from IDP.

In 2011, under a small grants initiative, the Canadian government awarded the IDP Foundation a grant of over 20,000 euros for a water and sanitation project in the Kalinga province.

The Canadian Embassy in Manila confirmed the grant was released to IDP. Audit reports on the project were not readily available, but the Canadian government confirmed completion of the project and full disbursement of funds.

Panabe, who was contacted via email and SMS, declined to comment on these two initiatives.