Today, February 5, 2008, by Leong Wee Keat

They are two different sets of statistics, painting two very different pictures.

According to the Philippine Embassy, in an annual report recently submitted to the Philippine government, the number of Filipinos trafficked into Singapore and forced to work at red-light establishments last year hit an all-time high of 212 cases, a surge of 70 per cent over 2006.

On the other hand, responding to Today’s queries yesterday, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) supplied statistics that showed the number of alleged Trafficking In Persons (TIP) cases reported to the police had, in fact, been falling: From 35 three years ago, to 33 in 2006 and 28 cases last year.

The Philippine Embassy said its record figure last year ? comprising those who fled to it for help ? represented “only a small fraction of all the Filipino human trafficking victims in Singapore”, with many allegedly unable or too afraid to escape from bars and pubs where they were being exploited.

But the MHA, which said “all reports of alleged exploitation of women are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated”, highlighted that none of the reports police received in 2005 and 2006 were substantiated – that is, the complainants “did not engage in commercial sex because of force, fraud or coercion”. Added the MHA: “There is no increase in the number of trafficking cases reported to the police.”

Why the apparent disparity between both sets of figures? According to Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) president Constance Singam, it boils down to “the clash of definitions”. Singapore’s definition of human trafficking is dependent on consent, she said. “If they come here, enter legally but are abused and used as prostitutes, Singapore doesn’t consider it as trafficking.”

In the eyes of the law here, such “willing parties” are regarded as immigration offenders, she said, citing an Aware report last August that made a similar case.

In November, the Philippines embassy had warned of human trafficking rings duping unwary Filipino job-seekers into coming here on airline tickets that had faked return legs, leaving them stranded and forced to work illegally. Fifteen Filipinos were jailed from three to 10 months here, after they produced the fake return tickets to immigration authorities.

Then, there is the credibility attached to the testimony of those who claim to have been trafficked. Each victim, the Philippine embassy said, is interviewed and an affidavit taken, after which she is advised to file a compliant in Singapore or in the Philippines.

While the Philippines side may be predisposed to regard all claims as true, president of Transient Workers Count 2 (TWC2) John Gee said, Singapore authorities may be more sceptical. “Here, we’re dealing with standards of evidence, perhaps differences of interpretation too,” said Mr Gee.

Offering another explanation is Ms Bridget Liew, founder and president of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), who said some foreign nationals’ experience with corrupt officials back home might make them fearful of approaching local enforcement officers. Hence, they turn more to NGOs and their own embassies, she added.

The Philippine embassy attributed the reported rise in human trafficking cases to four main factors: Budget airlines which have lowered the cost of travel, a network of illegal recruiters and syndicates, the large number of nighspots in Singapore’s red light districts fuelling the demand for Filipino women, and poverty and joblessness in the Philippines.

The MHA, however, pointed out that the existence of vice activities did not mean there was human trafficking in Singapore. “Nevertheless, Police has a dedicated unit that looks into vice issues, including trafficking of women for commercial sexual exploitation,” it added.

In the report, Philippine ambassador Belen Fule-Anota said the embassy had been coordinating closely with Philippine and Singapore authorities to address the problem. Besides greater effort to create more awareness on the ground in the Philippines about illegal recruiters, she urged “better coordination and greater political will” in both the source and destination countries, and efforts at the bilateral and regional levels.

In Singapore, a three-pronged approach – of prevention, prosecution and victim assistance – has been taken, said the MHA. This includes a tough stance against immigration offenders and tighter border security checks; as well as “robust laws”, such as provisions in the Penal Code and the Women’s Charter, to protect minors and women against human traffickers. Those who need help can, such as crisis accommodation, can turn to the police of family service centres, the ministry added.

Even so, NGOs TODAY spoke to said Asean countries needed to step up efforts against human trafficking. According to United Nations figures, there are 2.5 million trafficked victims at any one time in the world, with the majority in Asia and the Pacific.

Citing the 2007 Asean declaration committing the region to concrete measures to prevent or curb the smuggling and trafficking in persons, Ms Singam wondered about progress since. “What kind of work plan do they have?” she asked.

Mr Gee said the Asean countries first had to come to consensus on some common definitions, so that their statistics describe the same phenomena using the same terms. Effort should also be made to compile comprehensive records of trafficking claims and make them easily available to law enforcement authorities, so that patterns of offending are more readily detected.

“There’s a need for a more pro-active approach — to look for employers who appear to be using coerced labour obtained under false pretences, even before anyone alleges it is happening. And more determination worldwide to stamp out this evil,” he said.