By Patrick Temple-West
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than $410 billion in illicit money crossed the borders of the Philippines from 1960 to 2011, with customs fraud related to imported goods surging in recent years, according to a study by a U.S.-based anti-graft watchdog group released on Monday.
Global Financial Integrity (GFI) said a record high of $25.8 billion came into the Southeast Asian, archipelago nation illegally in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available. (GFI report: http://r.reuters.com/buv56v)
That was up from $22.9 billion in 2010, marking back-to-back years of record illicit inflows. About $14.2 billion of illicit inflows was reported for 2009, the study said.
These illicit inflows are typically the result of under-reported merchandise that is shipped into the country, said GFI economist Brian LeBlanc, one of the report's authors.
"This is mostly importers trying to avoid VAT taxes or import tariffs," LeBlanc said. "Customs corruption is a huge issue in the Philippines," he said.
Over the 42-year period, about $277.6 billion was illegally transferred into the country, and $132.9 billion in illicit funds went out of the country from crime, corruption, and tax evasion, the report said.
The Philippine Treasury has lost at least $19.3 billion in tax revenue since 1990 due to customs duties evasion, GFI said.
"It is our view that trade-related fraud has reached an epidemic proportion in the Philippines," Tom Cardamone, managing director of GFI, told reporters in Manila. He added about a fourth of all goods imported into the country were not reported to the customs bureau.
Weak governance and rising levels of corruption in the Philippines were aiding illicit money flows, Cardamone said, adding he hopes the study will spur the government to consider legislative and regulatory measures to curb the illicit flows.
The report, based on trade statistics data from the International Monetary Fund, reflects conservative numbers on illicit flows as it does not capture undocumented cash and services, Cardamone said. The study was financed by the Ford Foundation, a donor to GFI, which also receives funding from governments and individuals.
GFI recommended that Philippine lawmakers take steps to strengthen enforcement of customs and anti-money laundering laws. Transactions involving tax-haven jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai should be scrutinized more closely, the group said.
For its part, the Philippine government said it was addressing problems on smuggling via reforms such as updating customs value reference guides, calling for more transparency in reports on imports, revamping the importer accreditation process and review of the monitoring of customs bonded warehouses.
"We assumed office without any illusion that this is a small-time problem. We realize that this is a systemic and deeply-rooted problem, that is why we are prepared to address it strategically and to adopt long-term solutions," Herminio Coloma, presidential spokesman, told reporters.
In December, President Benigno Aquino appointed a new management team in the customs bureau and reassigned district collectors - part of systemic reforms, Coloma said.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a grouping of major industrialized countries, in 2010 removed the Philippines from a blacklist of non-cooperative tax havens after Manila changed its tax and bank secrecy laws.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco in Manila; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)