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Fight Human Trafficking by Respecting Human Rights

By Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Research Analyst, Singapore Institute of International Affairs
With a National Plan of Action (NPA) on Trafficking in Persons due out in a few months, Singapore is at a turning point. A recent round of public consultations with NGOs, academia and interested persons suggests that the Trafficking in Persons Inter-agency Taskforce is committed to its mandate to tackle the issue of trafficking. Promisingly, the government is in principle adopting the UN definition on trafficking and adopting a 4P – Prevention, Prosecution, Protection and Partnership – approach to combat the issue. All this is very positive, but much work remains to be done in the final weeks and months before the NPA is released to ensure that its outcome is a good one.

23 Feb 2012

Rachel Chhoa-Howard speaking at ONE (SINGAPORE)’s panel discussion on Child Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Poverty

There is still time to influence the Inter-agency Taskforce’s work, before it becomes national policy.

In particular, as anti-trafficking campaigners, we need to ensure that the National Plan of Action is grounded in a human rights perspective, which protects the rights of the victims.  The Taskforce is conducting a final round of public consultations through 23 February and subsequently non-profit groups and members of the public can continue to advocate for these changes.

A victim-centred approach

Trafficking is a human rights issue because of the use of coercion and subsequent exploitation inherent in the practice. But a human rights perspective can also provide a better understanding of the problems experienced by those trafficked. Surely, to be a victim of trafficking is bad enough. But ‘victimisation’ – ignoring a victim’s needs and point of view, in the aftermath – can lead to deprivation of a victim’s self-control and autonomy, not to mention isolation from their family, society and the world around them.

A victim-centred approach focuses on empowering victims or survivors and restoring their dignity and self-worth. There are encouraging signs that Singapore is increasing its recognition of victims rights. In a marked change from the past, as long as a person claims to be trafficked in Singapore, it appears that the new National Plan of Action will ensure that she or he will be treated as a trafficking victim. Previously a foreigner who entered the country willingly to work illegally could have been treated as an immigration offender. It has also been agreed that a toll free 24 hour hotline will be set up, with translation services to allow trafficking victims to seek help. More details, such as who will run this hotline or when it will be established, are still unclear. As these questions are considered, it is imperative that the well-being of the victim comes first.

State responsibilities

In addition to victim protection, states also have a duty to prohibit trafficking and related acts, to prosecute and punish perpetrators and to address the causes and the consequences of trafficking itself.

When it comes to the prosecution of those responsible, the principle of non-refoulement or non-return means that temporary residence permits should be given to victims so that they can legally reside and work in Singapore, if they are at risk of re-entering the system. At all times, a victim should be able to remain in a state whilst court proceedings are underway, have effective witness protection of his/her identity and have free access to interpreters and legal advice. Compensation is an important form of remedy and the government bears the primary responsibility in this regard, because the fact that people are being trafficked illustrates the state’s failure to prevent traffickers from abusing victims. Apart from a government agency dedicated to trafficking, a body such as a national human rights institution should also be set up to monitor the issue.

Child Trafficking

When it comes to the particular issue of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, more measures must be taken. Reliable figures on child victims of trafficking for sexual purposes in Singapore remain difficult to obtain due to a lack of disaggregated data and the hidden and illegal nature of the crime. As such, the government should establish an independent monitoring mechanism to regularly supervise and gather information to ensure that child rights conform to the provisions set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Singapore is a state party.

Singaporean law meanwhile provides for extraterritorial jurisdiction over Singaporean citizens and permanent residents who exploit children in other countries. However, the Singapore government has never prosecuted or convicted anyone for child sex tourism. The government must therefore re-examine this issue.

The role of poverty and discrimination

Finally, human rights can be used to address wider problems related to trafficking, including anti-poverty measures.

To the official 4Ps of fighting trafficking, I would add a 5th ‘P’: Poverty. Poverty is a human rights issue, as it affects economic, social and cultural rights – the right to food, housing and an adequate standard of health and education. Poverty is also a key driver of trafficking, compelling millions of migrant and foreign domestic workers to leave their home countries every year. When it comes to the sexual exploitation of children, poverty has an even bigger role to play as it often contributes to illiteracy, limited employment opportunities and difficult financial circumstances.  Children and youth from financially-struggling families become easy targets for procurement agents, who lure girls and boys away with the promise of high-paying urban jobs only to force them into prostitution.

Another issue that fuels trafficking is discrimination. The lack of employment opportunities for people belonging to gender, racial or ethnic groups forces them to go elsewhere and is a reason why women, in particular, are more vulnerable to traffickers.

The way ahead

A human rights approach is not the only tool we can use to combat trafficking, but it is an important one.

As Singapore’s Inter-Agency Taskforce continues its work to develop a new National Plan of Action (NPA) on Trafficking in Persons, it must use a human rights perspective to analyse trafficking issues and develop appropriate responses. Addressing trafficking in Singapore will involve work by many parties – civil society organisations, government and individuals – at multiple levels. But by keeping an open mind, taking into account a variety of approaches and perspectives, we can ensure that we continue to move forward in the fight to reduce trafficking and closer to the goal of a safer, more equal society for all.

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