How do we stop Human Trafficking?
Discussing “Child Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Poverty”
By ShuQi Liu
Across the globe, states appear to be giving a higher priority to drugs and wildlife smuggling, not to mention media piracy, than human trafficking. And did you know that, here in Singapore, trafficking victims – who often do not have access to their own passports, much less the freedom to leave their place of ‘work’ – are caned and jailed for overstaying their visas?
These are just two of the points raised in front of a congregation of white collared workers, tertiary students, academics and social activists on a recent Tuesday evening at Singapore Management University at an event organised by ONE (SINGAPORE) in association with SMU’s Wee Kim Wee Centre. Trafficking issues strike a chord in the hearts of many in our community, myself included, and this was clearly evident in the packed seminar room in SMU’s business school, where additional chairs had to be brought in to seat participants.
Complex Politics and Twice Persecuted
Professor Kirpal Singh, one of Singapore’s most prolific cultural critics, strides up to the front with a purposeful sense of insight. He observes that Singapore, as a country which both exports sex tourists and is a destination market for traffickers to send their victims, is in a curious position on the night’s topic.
“We are perhaps not doing anything concrete,” Kirpal notes. “The politics of the situation is complex, we are not aggressively firm, but have also shown unhappiness at the diplomatic level.”
“How are we talking about the issue of human trafficking? When a woman shares a story of being duped by a promise of quick money in Singapore, only to be forced into the sex trade, do we ask ‘how could she have been so blind?” As individuals we need to suspend judgement of the victims.” ~ Braema Mathi
“There are no disparities in human trafficking – it affects men, women, boys and girls”, adds Braema Mathi, a former president of AWARE (the Association of Women for Action and Research) and ex-Nominated Member of Parliament.
And worse still, individuals who have been coerced or tricked into coming to Singapore – with the promise of a high-paying manufacturing or service-industry job, when in reality the work is in a brothel or pays significantly less than promised – are often treated as law-breakers here rather than victims.
“Victims of human trafficking often undergo double punishment when the state’s identity pushes individuals into another dimension. In Singapore, those trafficked are first charged with illegal immigration and then sentenced to jail and even caning.”
Braema notes though that changes in Singapore’s political scene mean that ministers and government agencies are more open to feedback, which provides concerned citizens with greater opportunity to voice out about injustices.
Indeed, Singaporeans need to be more proactive, vocal and aware on this issue. We need to stop questioning or blaming victims and work instead to protect their rights and confront the roots of the problem.
Eliminating poverty and empowering women are key components in the campaign to end human trafficking.
Four, no Five, P’s
The second speaker, Pia Charlotte Bruce, Executive Director of UN Women Singapore, addressed the topic from a social perspective, noting that high mobility, international travel and economic growth contribute to Singapore’s susceptibility. Like other activists, Pia calls for a 4P strategy to overcome these vulnerabilities:
→ Prevention – raise awareness, reduce poverty and improve health & education
→ Protection – align local laws with international standards and better training for police and immigration officials
→ Prosecution – stronger penalties and protection of whistle-blowers
→ Partnership – to effectively implement laws at the regional and international levels.
To this, Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a researcher at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, adds a 5th “P”, an underlying cause: Poverty. Chhoa-Howard argues that poverty in the region is a key driver of trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Sex Tourism and Trafficking
But if there was no demand, there would be no industry for traffickers to exploit. And unfortunately, Singaporeans are among the most numerous sex tourists in Thailand and at least 3000 Singaporeans and Malaysians take a ferry to neighboring Batam for sex every week.
Singaporean law provides for extraterritorial jurisdiction for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents who exploit children in other countries. But this law goes unenforced. Rachel points out that Singapore has never prosecuted or convicted a citizen or PR for having sexual relations with a child outside the country.
Last but not least, Bridget Tan, founder and president of H.O.M.E., added a very personal perspective to the discussion.
“One of the girls we took in had escaped from a brothel in Geylang. She refused to talk for one month,” Bridget shared. “The only person she could relate to was a pet dog in the shelter. When she was finally ready to tell her story, we found out that she had been gang-raped every time. And she was old enough to be my daughter. Despite the experience of extreme violation and severe trauma, she was repatriated after six months without any compensation. Is this even justifiable?”
While I know that these things happen, stories like this shock me . . . particularly that something like this can happen in the heart of Singapore, my home.
Better Policies Needed
Bridget also highlighted several areas for change that H.O.M.E. is championing and which we can all work together to achieve, including
Hani Mohamed produced the short film “Innocence” to move Asian leaders to put a stop to human trafficking and child prostitution.
→ a Victims Assistance Programme
→ drafting and advocating for a legal definition of trafficking, as none currently exists in Singapore
→ better training on the issue for police, lawyers and judges
→ equal partnerships between civil society advocates and government agencies
The presentations were followed by a short film produced by ONE (SINGAPORE) Secretary Hani Mohamed showcasing child sex and human trafficking in Geylang, the popular red-light district here. In the film, a man logs onto the internet, makes a booking on a pornographic website then proceeds to meet a locked-up girl, all within a few hours. In a choked voice, Hani recollects the inspiration behind the film, a segment on The May Lee Show that described how pimps and traffickers threatened unwilling sex workers by caging them and ‘stuffing chillies in their private parts’.
Clearly, no one should be subjected to the brutality of trafficking, much less because of poverty. And every child should be able to enjoy a carefree and joyful childhood. Together, we can work together to manifest a better world. As well-travelled and educated Singaporeans, we can engage ourselves . . . by volunteering at a shelter, boycotting services offered by illegal syndicates, raising awareness among our friends and family so that no one blames the victims and campaigning for policies that will put an end to these evils.
- “Stop Sex Trafficking” by Bridget Tan
- “Child Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Poverty” (event description)
- Read The Online Citizen’s write-up of the panel discussion