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Human Trafficking in Singapore? The Perils of Sensationalist Crusades

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on June 24, 2011
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On Saturday, 11th June 2011 the Straits Times published a special report on human trafficking in Singapore. According to its authors, ruthless criminals lure and trick innocent women and children from around Southeast Asia to be enslaved as prostitutes across the island. What is more, even the ones (less innocent?) who arrive in Singapore consenting to work in the sex industry, can easily become abused and cheated by evil traffickers. This gloomy vision is illustrated by a few terrifying (and almost pornographic) anecdotes about “lucky” survivors of the horrors and by descriptions of the brave and noble NGO anti-trafficking/rescue organizations.

Fortunately, at least according to ST and rescue NGOs, Singapore has decided to act in order to end this “nightmare” The country is now working towards signing a United Nations treaty to prevent human trafficking. It has also decided to create an anti-trafficking task force and generally treat the problem more seriously. It seems that this new approach was largely motivated by Singapore’s desire not to be seen as a “bad” country in the annual U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report. Last yearSingapore was downgraded following its lack of serious efforts to comply with the only right standards promoted by the American administration. Whatever the motivation behind the new strategy, the problem is that focusing efforts and attention on “human trafficking” is not likely to resolve the real problems faced by migrants.

In my last NTS Alert I highlighted major problems with the very concept of “human trafficking”. The main issue is that the human trafficking discourse obscures the complexities of illegal migration and employment. It assumes that people especially women from poor countries are naïve, pathetic and helpless and that they need to be “rescued”. It ignores the fact that illegal migration is a risky business. With the exception of extreme cases of actual kidnappings, it always contains some element of consent and potential risks of abuse. However, the anti-traffickers assume that poor people do not have free will and could not possibly decide to take these risks. They also believe that no one would choose to work in some “bad” industries or under some “bad” conditions. Hence, it is argued that the reason why very few migrant sex workers claim to have been trafficked is that they were forced to lie with no evidence for that other than one anecdote. As a result, those fighting human-trafficking often end up fighting migration and employment of those they deem “vulnerable”. The ST story actually praises the efforts of the Philippine government to identify “potential victims” and to arbitrarily deny them the right to travel.

If one was serious about protecting migrants from abuse, deception or violence, he or she should think more about making their work and residence legitimate. It is because these are illegitimate that so many migrants experience deception and abuse. The government of Singapore already recognizes such crimes as kidnapping, rape or theft. What is needed now is not a new crime, but appropriate provisions that would protect everyone from the above.

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