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Study sheds light on sex trafficking in S'pore

Publication Date : 10-02-2014


An independent study of sex trafficking victims has shed some light on the murky world of the unregulated sex trade in Singapore.

It found that victims from the Philippines were lured to Singapore by friends and acquaintances on the pretext of jobs such as waitressing and hostessing, before ending up in nightclubs.

Some Indonesian victims, meanwhile, were already prostitutes in Batam before coming here to ply their trade on the streets and budget hotels, under the watchful eyes of local pimps.

The 144-page study, released last week, was conducted by Singapore-based academic Sallie Yea, an assistant professor of geography at the National Institute of Education, who interviewed 87 women tricked into coming to Singapore.

It also provided a glimpse into the women's conditions here, all of whom "were denied decent food and living conditions", which led them to "feelings of lethargy, depression and fatigue".

They had to pay off debts, and their passports were withheld. Some were even forced to have unsafe sex.

"I always ask my customers to use a condom, but they nearly all refuse... because they paid for me, so they can do whatever they like," the report quoted a 17-year-old Indonesian as saying.

Dr Yea, an Australian, said she conducted the study because "the current state of knowledge about trafficking in Singapore is remarkably paltry compared with that in all its Asean neighbours, most of which are significant source countries for trafficking to Singapore".

Most of these women entered Singapore on tourist visas. And when they were caught, they were treated as immigration offenders, which Dr Yea said made things worse for the victims.

While being investigated by the authorities, the women were not allowed to find legal work or return home, which makes them vulnerable to being lured back into the sex trade.

Countries such as Australia have a witness protection visa specially for trafficking victims, said Vanessa Ho, a coordinator at Project X, a volunteer outreach group that protects sex workers' rights. The visa lets them remain in the country and find work.

Besides the visa system here, Dr Yea also took issue with a government task force formed to combat trafficking.

"The referral process for non-governmental organisation to direct possible trafficking cases to the task force, in particular, is fraught," she said.

But the study lauded a move to introduce a dedicated anti-trafficking law here, describing it as "an opportunity to better support victims of trafficking".

It is the brainchild of MP Christopher de Souza, who plans to introduce it to Parliament as a private member's Bill next year. Such private Bills by MPs who are not Cabinet ministers are rare.

Dr Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, a board member of migrant workers group Transient Workers Count Too, said it is important to take into account the different experiences of sex workers here when coming up with legislation.

She said: "Our experiences show that some women are exploited, but because they are not considered to be trafficked, they are not granted protection."

Slightly more sex trafficking reports last year

Singapore police received 53 sex trafficking reports last year, up slightly from 52 in 2012 and 43 in 2011.

While the rest are still under investigation, five have been dealt with in court.

One of them involved a 17-year-old from China, who was beaten and drugged before being brought here last May to work as a prostitute.

The minor was made to serve 150 clients in 15 days.

Her pimp from China, 37-year-old Tang Huisheng, was sentenced to six years in jail last October.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which provided the latest numbers on Saturday, said it has not received the new report by Dr Sallie Yea on sex trafficking here.

"We look forward to her sharing the report with us," a spokesman said.

MHA and the manpower ministry are currently leading an inter-agency task force set up in 2010 to combat sex and labour trafficking.

A spokesman said that it started a one-year study of sex trafficking victims last April

to shed more light on their profile and how sex trafficking rings operate.

She added that since last August, the task force has been cutting "procedural impediments" in how sex trafficking cases are handled.

The changes will ensure that cases are followed up on and tracked more effectively.

The police also formed an anti-sex trafficking team comprising investigation and intelligence officers last February, she said.

The spokesman stressed that it will "take time" for the task force's plans to be effective in stamping out trafficking.


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