CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES, June 11, 2015
Michael Refalo, a 61-year-old Australian national, is now behind bars, arrested on two charges of human trafficking by Philippine authorities. The May 13 arrest follows an extensive investigation which uncovered the abuse and exploitation of 14 girls, including 10 suspected minors, over the last three to four years.
Refalo had been living in a small island town near Cebu, Philippines, for the past six years. He was regarded by the community as wealthy and influential.
Although he may have been considered untouchable due to his resources and influence, authorities proved the opposite. "This case is an example of the hope created by an effective public justice system. Despite his resources and influence, Mr. Refalo is not above the law,” remarked Jesse Rudy, National Director for IJM Philippines. "Although they lack resources and connections, victims of abuse and exploitation are not outside of the law’s protection.”
According to the victims, Refalo promised them food, money, cell phones, and even payment for schooling in order to lure them to his home. In exchange, he would require them to have sex with him.
Investigation Begins Following Suspicious Reports
In 2013, witnesses in his neighbourhood reported to the police that they had seen children in school uniforms entering the Australian’s home and going out with him at night and to resorts.
The Philippine National Police Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Region 7 (PNP-RAHTTF 7) investigated the allegations of abuse and requested the help of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Municipal Social Welfare Office of Santa Fe, and IJM in locating the victims.
Two girls, 15 and 16 years old, were found just a few months into the investigation.
One of the girls shared with a social worker how Refalo had repeatedly sexually exploited her, and the other stated that he attempted to have sex with her. Through the girls’ testimonies, 12 other victims between the ages of 14 and 18 were identified.
Joint Operation Leads to Apprehension and Arrest
Authorities, including the Vice Governor of Cebu and the Cebu Provincial Police, mobilized to arrest Refalo, but he fled to another island several hours away. Cebu police immediately enlisted the help of the mayor and local police. Days later, Refalo was apprehended.
"The cooperation of the national and local police, government and social services was truly remarkable,” added Jesse. "This is a great example of how the various members of the public justice system can work together to protect vulnerable women and children in the Philippines.”
Refalo is now in jail awaiting trial. If convicted of qualified trafficking, he will be sentenced to life in prison, according to the Philippine’s appropriately stringent anti-trafficking laws.
IJM will assist the public prosecutor in prosecuting the case and will work with the government to ensure survivor protection and trial rights. In addition, IJM social workers will continue providing the survivors with aftercare to help them on their journey to healing.
As the case gains media interest from the Philippines, Australia and other global media outlets, a strong message is delivered to would-be offenders, said Jeff Nagle, Chief Executive of IJM Australia. "Michael Refalo’s case sends a clear message to Australian pedophiles, and to sex tourists and traffickers worldwide: abuse a child and you will be held to account.”