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In the jargon of those who fight against human trafficking, Thailand is a “source, transit and destination” country for those tricked or forced, or both, into slavery.
Singapore, however, is a “destination” country for victims. That’s logical: there is much more trafficking within poor countries and much more trafficking to richer nations.
Most human trafficking involves women and most of it concerns sex. A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 79% of human trafficking worldwide was for sexual exploitation. And most of the people in charge of the trafficking are women.
In this manner, a Thai woman a little while ago went to Singapore. She thought she would work in a restaurant. Instead, she found herself working above the restaurant, locked up and forced against her will to provide sex to customers, as many as 10 a night. She cannot leave; nor can the dozens of Thai women locked up with her.
In Bangkok, this young woman worked as a bar girl. She was paid for sex but at least she had some ability to choose when and with whom. In Singapore, she is being raped, repeatedly.
Kidnapping, imprisonment and rape are crimes, no matter what the standing of the victim. She has no idea where she is but wherever it is, she and her sister sex slaves are under guard.
But she was able to get a message out to an American friend before her mobile phone went dead. Her case is now being investigated by the Thai authorities.
Thailand at least has systems for helping trafficking victims, both domestically and internationally and they are rated well by the US State Department, which reports each year on human trafficking.
Singapore’s approach is less benign.
If prostitution is the oldest profession, sexual slavery would be one of the oldest crimes. In areas of Bangkok, and places like Pattaya, commercial sex is part of the drive-by scenery. In some cases (such as Eastern European women in Pattaya) sex trafficking is involved.
But in Singapore, it seems, the brothel owners imprison their sex slaves.
This does not match the Singapore brand. Singapore is a modern, cosmopolitan country. It is clean, tidy and efficient. Its people are well-educated and multi-lingual. But it also tolerates sexual slavery.
The US State Department said in its 2008 report on human trafficking: “Singapore is a destination country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of labour and commercial sexual exploitation. Some women from India, Thailand, the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China who travel to Singapore voluntarily for prostitution or work are subsequently deceived or coerced into sexual servitude.”
Singapore is also a country governed by the rule of law. The report noted that Singapore had strict laws against sex trafficking, including imprisonment, fines and caning. Yet somehow the rule of law does not extend to sexual servitude.
The US State Department noted that Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs received and investigated 28 reports of human trafficking in 2007-2008. “One case remains under investigation,” it said. “…the others were closed due to lack of substantiating evidence.”
That may suggest that Singapore does not have a serious problem with human trafficking. But one way of making sure a dirty problem stays under the carpet is to fail to collect the information.
Singapore has thousands of foreign prostitutes but are they sellers or victims? The Singapore government is making sure it does not have to answer that question.
“In 2007 the police arrested 5,402 foreign women for prostitution, who were generally incarcerated, then deported,” the State Department said. “The number of trafficking victims among this group is unknown; however, government measures to proactively identify potential trafficking victims among this vulnerable population, if any, appear to have been limited.”
This approach had two effects.
First, victims of trafficking, the State Department pointed out, were penalised for acts committed because they were sex slaves. Second, no one will know the scope of the trafficking problem because the government has no statistics. No information means, publicly, no problem.
Perhaps Singapore will investigate the case of the Thai women imprisoned in a lock-up brothel. Or perhaps not. The UN report on human trafficking, in the final sentence of its small chapter on Singapore, said: “No victims of trafficking in persons were identified or sheltered by State authorities.”
David Armstrong has worked as a reporter, editor and media executive in Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand.