By Betheena Kae Unite
This year, the Philippine Coast Guard picked up where it left off last year by continuously boosting its force to fulfill its major mission as guardians of the country’s waters.
The arrival of acquired foreign-made vessels into the country and the deployment of some Coast Guard personnel to the Bureau of Customs for joint mission were some of the highlights of the organization this year.
A project that started in 2016 was finally completed this year with the arrival of the last multi-role response vessel from Japan in August.
The project called the Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project was curated to acquire 10 on-loan 44-meter multi-role response vessels from Japan. It is aimed to intensify the country’s maritime security as the vessels were deployed in the Philippine seas to be utilized in time of sea accidents, search and rescue missions, as well as anti-smuggling and anti-piracy operations.
The delivery of the 10 multi-role response vessels started in 2016.
They were named after the primary lighthouses in the country to cite the important role of the lighthouse as an aid to navigation to mariners.
The 10 vessels, which arrived in separate dates since then, were commissioned as Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas (BRP) Tubbataha, BPR Malabrigo, BRP Malapascua, BRP Capones, BRP Suluan, BRP Sindangan, BRP Cape San Agustin, BRP Cabra, BRP Bagacay and BRP Cape Engano.
The vessels were acquired through a P7.3-billion loan agreement with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
According to Rear Admiral Elson Hermogino, PCG commandant, the vessels are also being utilized to provide assistance in the control of oil pollution and protection of marine environment.
French-built patrol boats
It was also in 2018 that the acquisition of four French-made fast patrol boats were completed.
The four 24-meter fast patrol boats were acquired through an agreement between the Department of Transportation and maritime technology expert and ship builder OCEA S.A. of France in 2014.
The deal was made “to strengthen the Philippine Coast Guard’s enforcement in maritime safety and security, and marine environmental protection.”
The first two vessels were delivered in August and September this year while the last two boats arrived early December.
The patrol boats will be fielded for anti-smuggling missions in the country as three of the vessels will be jointly operated by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Customs.
The Coast Guard also said that an 82-meter offshore patrol vessel is scheduled to arrive in August 2019.
Hermogino said the procurement of the vessels includes training, provision of spare parts and technical assistance after the delivery date.
In November, the “militarization” of the Customs bureau was implemented, wherein the PCG was tasked to deploy a number of its personnel to assist the embattled bureau in its customs operations, especially in law enforcement and anti-smuggling missions.
The Coast Guard is tasked to “assist in the enforcement of laws on fisheries, immigration, tariff and customs, forestry, firearms and explosives, human trafficking, dangerous drugs, and controlled chemicals, transnational crimes, the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act and other applicable laws within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines.”
Prior to the development, there has been an agreement between the two agencies on jointly carrying out anti-smuggling operations.
During the start of the joint operations of the two agencies with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the PCG expressed its intention to donate at least five 11-meter fast boats to the Bureau of Customs to strengthen its anti-smuggling drive.
Hermogino said that they are ready to give five boats or depending on the Customs bureau’s requirement.
He said that there is a non-government organization from Europe who wants to donate boats made in Sri Lanka to the Philippines. The boats are expected to be delivered by the second quarter of 2019. Once donated, the boats will no longer be manned by the Coast Guard but by Customs personnel.
Vessel traffic management system
Aiming to prevent yet another deadly collision of vessels, the first ever vessel traffic management system that oversees maritime traffic was launched in Cebu in February.
The Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) is composed of VTMS control center and three radar stations that are strategically located at the headquarters of Coast Guard District Central Visayas, Talisay, Bantalinao and Interbridge to have full coverage of vessel movements.
The system aims to prevent maritime traffic along Cebu-Mactan Channel.
The Port of Cebu, according to Coast Guard, was considered as the first port to have a traffic management system because it is the second largest domestic port in the Philippines and a maritime hub for the Visayan region. It is also one of the busiest maritime traffic in the country.
Foiled human trafficking
While majority of the year, the Coast Guard was busy welcoming and commissioning its new vessels and working closely with its counterparts and other local government agencies, in the middle of the year, the PCG was able to intercept a mass human trafficking in the country.
In July, a total of 139 skilled workers from various provinces in the country were rescued from an alleged human smuggling attempt after an old cruise ship bound for Micronesia was intercepted in Bataan.
They were rescued from a departing cruise ship named “Forever Lucky” at the Port of Orion in a joint anti-human smuggling operations of the Coast Guard and National Bureau of Investigation.
Forty-one crewmen were apprehended after they presented fake documents and failed to show a special permit to navigate.
It was then learned that the 139 undocumented hopefuls were allegedly illegally recruited to work in the cruise ship. Most of them were skilled workers who were promised jobs as cooks, entertainers, singers, housekeepers, caregivers.
According to officials, it was the first mass human smuggling case in Luzon as they feared that it might be the “first among bigger illegal operations,” prompting them to launched a thorough investigation to look into the possible connivance between private sectors and government officials.
Exodus of undocumented Filipinos
Over a month after the foiled human trafficking, an alleged exodus of 63 undocumented Filipinos from Malaysia onboard a local vessel into the country was prevented in Basilan.
Authorities intercepted the group while their vessel “M/L Al Hapidz” was approaching and about to dock in PMI wharf, located in Baliwasan seaside, Zamboanga City.
They were later found to have been journeyed from Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia.
Authorities also found out that the passengers were undocumented aliens living in Malaysia and decided to return home after a massive crackdown of undocumented aliens in Malaysia.
They returned to avoid being arrested, the Coast Guard said.
It was disclosed that 25 of the passengers, mostly minors, do not have any identification. The other passengers with identification and documents were eventually released to the Department of Social Welfare Development.
Further investigation determined that the passengers were from Sibuco, and Sirawai, in Zamboanga del Norte province, while the rest are from the barangays of Sangali, Upper Calarian, and Sta Barbara in Zamboanga City.