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Draft bill does not empower trafficked victims to report

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StopTraffickingSG Press Conference

The message by the coalition of 6 NGOs behind the StopTraffickingSG Campaign is clear:  Without a victim-centred approach, the bill will not be effective in combating human trafficking in Singapore.

Jolovan Wham, Executive Director, HOME kicks off the press conference, by stressing the importance of the right to work for trafficked victim during the long police investigation period. One of the first questions victims ask is ‘Can I work if I file the complaint?’ When the answer was negative, many decided not to proceed with their cases. They simply cannot afford to, as they have families to care for

In HOME’s experience, investigations can take up to 2 years, or more before they are concluded, and foreign workers are often completely dependent on charity for meals, accommodation and other help that may not receive government funding.

Another important right that trafficked victims need is the one not to be prosecuted as an undocumented migrants. Traffickers are very much aware of the fear that victims have for the authorities, and use this to deter them from filing complaints.

“Employers will threaten: ‘If you file a case against me, you will go to jail yourself, or get the cane,” said Jolovan Wham. These examples aim to show that the Bill should not be just about the prosecution of perpetrators, but about giving victims the confidence to come forward.

John Gee, Head of Research at TWC2, highlights the fact that human trafficking is an on-going process, and usually not committed by one person but by a chain of people across borders. The end user is complicit as well as the recruiter. The bill needs to recognize the danger of trafficked victims that are in debt becoming trafficked again when they return to their home countries.

Vivienne Wee, Head of Research & Advocacy, AWARE, spoke about the issue of deception, and the root cause of trafficking in persons: profiteering. Profit is not always a direct payment, but can also come in the forms of illegitimate salary deductions, non-
payment of salary or many others.

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Campaign leader Peck Hoon Tam highlights a bias in the Bill in assuming that trafficked victims are sex trafficked victims, as evident in the strong emphasis on police raids, overshadowing the fact that Foreign Domestic Workers and male migrant workers are also vulnerable to being trafficked.

There is a misconception of the idea of ‘perfect victim’ of human trafficking who is a woman physically locked and chained to a room and forced into prostitution. Reality is much more complicated. Psychological coercion, deception and debt bondage are critical factors that lead a foreign worker to be trafficked. It is important that the Bill reflects reality.

Outreach to foreign workers, by means of hotlines and information on NGO services for vicitms is more effective than police raids in encouraging victims of trafficking to seek help and report their cases.

Most critically, only a victim-centric bill which clearly spells out that rights of victims to shelter, work and protection from prosecution as an undocumented migrant while being trafficked will enable victims to report and testify against their traffickers.

Vanessa Ho, Project X, takes the point further when she points out that violent raids where a large group of police officers, armed with batons and tasers, and treating suspects in a loud and violent way, can lead to secondary traumatization to victims.

As Vanessa puts it ‘it is important to empower foreign workers to report crimes, rather than to break down doors to find them.’

Braema Mathi, Maruah, added that the Bill makes a mention of the word decency, and asked whether raids like this, which are violent and often rather public, could be considered decent when it comes to safeguarding the victims?

She was relieved to see that not only sex work, but also forced labour has been mentioned in the proposed Bill, but stressed that many points in the Bill need more clarification, before there can be any way of knowing whether this Bill will be good enough.

All NGO’s present agreed that key terms in the proposed Bill, like ‘forced labour’ and ‘deception’, are not defined clearly, and that it must be made clear which indicators will be used in identifying potential victims of trafficking.

StopTraffickingSG hopes that the debate in Parliament will further clarify these issues, and that the representatives of the press present today will help raise questions in Singapore society.

This blog is written by a HOME volunteer present at the press conference #stoptraffickingsg

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