On human trafficking – Singapore falls short of international protocol

Posted by on May 9, 2011 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis

TWC2 has worked with others to oppose trafficking since 2006. From our first involvement with this issue, we thought that it was vital for Singapore to change its official view of what trafficking is if it was to be countered effectively. The article below, from the March-April 2009 TWC2 Newsletter, was a response to questions from the public.

TWC2 is sometimes asked about its position on trafficking of human beings for economic and sexual exploitation. Our response is that we are a society that is concerned with the position of migrant workers generally, and we do not focus on trafficking as an issue.  Sometimes, it comes up anyway, so over the years, we have developed a certain amount of knowledge about it and some policy positions.

We know that migrant workers are often persuaded to seek employment in other countries by false promises about good pay and conditions, and that this is often a feature of trafficking, but we still make a distinction between the normal flow of migrant labour and situations where, once workers have been recruited by force or deception, they are made to work and kept in their places of employment by threats or violence. The distinction may seem like a fine one, especially when we have to deal with domestic workers who are never allowed out of their employers’ homes, for example, but we still think that it matters. We should not undermine the gravity of the offence of trafficking by using the term too loosely.

We have only dealt with a very small number of trafficking cases through the TWC2 Helpline, but we know of others. Typically, they involved women being promised work in Singapore, usually in bars, and told that they could repay the costs of going there from their earnings. Once they arrived, their employers told them that they owed a lot of money and that they could repay it by having paid sex with men; resistance was sometimes met with violence.

This should be stopped altogether. There is a problem with the law as it stands, however, and until it is changed, it will be difficult for the police to clamp down hard on the chief forms of trafficking that go on here.

Currently, Singapore does not define trafficking according to the most widely accepted international criteria.

The key international document here is the ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’.

Article 3

Use of terms

For the purposes of this Protocol:

(a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the  threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of  deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the  giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a  person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or  services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;

(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used;’

Essentially, Singapore currently is only prepared to consider as having been trafficked a person who can prove physical compulsion. The fact that she came in through passport control at some point and did not say ‘I’m being forced into having sex against my will’ is seen as making her a willing participant in what happens to her. As can be seen from the definition quoted above, this is not how it is seen by countries that have signed up to this convention. When the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women drew up its concluding comments on Singapore in 2007, it stated:

The Committee is concerned at the narrow definition of trafficking employed by the State party. It is further concerned that women and girls who have been trafficked may be punished for violation of immigration laws and be treated as offenders rather than victims.

It then called upon Singapore to ratify the Protocol cited above and ‘review its current legal and policy measures in the light of the definition of trafficking contained in the Protocol in order to better identify victims of trafficking and prosecute traffickers. The Committee urges the State party to ensure that women and girl victims of trafficking are not punished for violations of immigration laws and have adequate assistance and remedies.’

We agree.

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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