What goes on in Singapore’s underbelly: Human Trafficking

  • Singapore is known as a hub of economic activity and is considered to be one of the safest places in the world, with a robust rule of law.
  • But with Singapore’s reliance on cheap labour, many reports in the West say there is a high probability of human trafficking here.
  • TheHomeGround Asia crawls into the underbelly of Singapore to find out if there is any truth in this.
Hagar Singapore utilises art therapy, among other methods, to help survivors of human trafficking recover from the trauma of exploitation and abuse. (Photo source: Lynette Lim)
Hagar Singapore utilises art therapy, among other methods, to help survivors of human trafficking recover from the trauma of exploitation and abuse. (Photo source: Lynette Lim)

She had to find work to support her family so her friends told her to work in Singapore as a babysitter or in a cafe. Instead, she was brought to Geylang as a sex worker. 

An Indonesian, Lilis, not her real name, was only 14.

Her story on Hagar Singapore’s website echoes many others, telling of how women and girls are trafficked into Singapore for sexual exploitations. Making use of Singapore’s attractive economic situation, criminal syndicates often deceive vulnerable victims with false job offers in hospitality, construction, domestic service, performing arts, manufacturing and service industries, promising them a better life for their families. 

Instead, they end up with debts from high recruitment fees to abusive employers.

“Human trafficking in Singapore revolves around migrant workers who are deceived into working in Singapore by false job offers,” says Ms Lynette Lim, Development and Communications Director of Hagar Singapore. As an international non-governmental organisation based in nine countries around the world, Hagar International works with survivors of human trafficking, providing them with a suite of aftercare services to help them recover and thrive.

“Victims are promised a golden ticket out of poverty, a decent job. For example, a waitressing job or a performing arts job. But the jobs they are actually employed in are completely different from what they have signed up for,” she says.

Victims often find themselves employed in nightclubs, where they are severely underpaid and forced to provide sexual favours. In fact, “most cases encountered by Hagar Singapore are sex and labour trafficking,” says Ms Lim. 

According to her, victims are also exploited in other non-sexual ways. They are denied food, housed in cramped and unsanitary conditions, and even have their passports and travel documents confiscated. “It is a way to break their will to escape from the trafficking ring,” she says.

Why are women especially vulnerable to being trafficked?

Ms Lim says these victims are usually women who come from very remote parts of countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Vietnam and the Philippines. “They have never had access to education, and are very lowly skilled. They usually have a large number of dependents, and therefore the pressure is on them to make money for the family. This is a very typical profile of what a victim will look like.”

“Syndicates usually prey on women because women typically feel more for their families. Many times, whether they are young girls or mothers, they are placed with the sole responsibility to care for their children and aged parents or dependents,” she adds.

As these women are “deeply entrenched in poverty” with little knowledge of the outside world owing to a lack of education, they are easily deceived by the traffickers, who are usually people they already know, of false job advertisements in countries like Singapore. 

Trapped in dire circumstances

“Before entering Singapore, victims have had to pay high recruitment fees, so they are already bound by debt. They also have zero access to any sort of help.” says Ms Lim, explaining that traffickers usually portray law enforcement in Singapore as “poisonous and corrupt” and that the victims will be put to jail if they were to seek help from the authorities. Most know that this is a false picture of Singapore’s robust rule of law.

“But this is extremely believable. The women trafficked are in an unknown, foreign land, where they do not understand a word of English. They cannot express themselves or even tell anybody where they are living,” Ms Lim says.

Traffickers also deliver psychological threats to the victims, threatening to kill their families back home if they tell anyone where they live, or what circumstances they are working in.  

“That is why it is not as easy as picking up the phone and reporting their plight to authorities. Going to the authorities was never an option for them,” says Ms Lim.

Singapore is helping victims of human trafficking

Hagar Singapore helps rehabilitate survivors of human trafficking by empowering them with key life skills. (Photo source: Lynette Lim)

Every year, the United States Department of State releases a Trafficking in Persons Report, where countries around the world are ranked according to the efforts taken to combat human trafficking. The US Department of State carries out a “very stringent process” to determine the ranking of the countries, says Ms Lim.  

The TIP report assesses solely the efforts of governments but not the efforts of NGOs, “though some of us are contacted for interviews”, says Ms Lim.- Countries are also assessed in terms of prosecution processes, protection of victims, and how they partner different agencies to prevent human trafficking and rehabilitate victims.  

In the 2020 and 2021 report, Singapore was ranked at Tier 1-the highest tier-in recognition of its efforts to combat human trafficking. Yet, this was not always the case. 

Before 2010, “there were little systems and processes in place” to combat trafficking, according to Ms Lim.  But that year, the Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons was established, comprising key ministries, co-led by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOH) and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Though Hagar Singapore handles some cases referred to by the government, there are other cases that were not tried under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act. These were cases charged under a different act such as the Women’s Charter or other employment breaches. 

According to Ms Lim, the Singapore authorities conduct investigations and make the necessary arrests to bust trafficking rings. Victims are then referred to Hagar Singapore, which provides extensive recovery services to help them bounce back from the trauma and abuse they faced when they were exploited. Hagar Singapore employs a holistic recovery model to help victims and ensure they are provided with safe accommodation, legal support, trauma recovery programmes and healthcare services. After their mental, physical and emotional well-being, as well as their sense of self-worth are restored, victims are then empowered to take back their lives.

“We help address victims’ inherent vulnerabilities: the vulnerabilities that made them prey to human trafficking syndicates in the first place,” says Ms Lim. Victims are educated, taught literacy skills and also economically empowered.

“We also train them to do work in English and in digital literacy skills. These two aspects are key to empowerment because we believe that improving their literacy is going to help them navigate the challenges in future: whether it is in Singapore or in other countries.

“Knowing and being able to read and write English will help them communicate and protect themselves better. We also teach them vocational skills, so that they will be more employable and able to find employment in a wider scope rather than looking simply at performing arts jobs,” Ms Lim says.

Hagar’s work does not stop there. Victims are taught useful life skills, such as planning and problem solving. They are also imbibed with conflict management and financial management skills to help them “lead a more fulfilling life, where they can build a more sustainable future for themselves and their families,” she adds.

Lastly, when their cases have been processed and tried in court, Hagar Singapore helps victims reintegrate into society. 

“Besides repatriating them, it is most important that when they return home, they can continue to thrive with all that they have learned during their time here,” says Ms Lim.

Hagar Singapore liaises with other Hagar offices to continuously provide support for victims. In countries without a Hagar office, such as in India and Bangladesh, Hagar liases with other organisations or individuals that share the same vision and core values in helping victims of human trafficking to provide them with continuous help.

Girls who are younger and have the aptitude or interest in education are “put back in school”, says Ms Lim. For some women who are older and prefer to work to be able to support their families, they are provided with economic support and job opportunities that help ensure their ability to make a decent living, free from the risk of trafficking.

“In Singapore, we can guarantee that these victims are safe. But when they return to their home countries, they are again introduced to many different levels of risks. We hope that by making victims economically independent, we can help reduce these risks of exploitation.”

A whole of society effort

With the support of the government, awareness is a big part of what Hagar Singapore does to curb and combat human trafficking. “In order to effectively tackle human trafficking in Singapore, the whole society needs to come together to play the different roles in addressing this crime,” says Ms Lim. Hagar also helps build the capacity of other social service organisations or even the authorities to curb human trafficking. Since 2014, it has partnered the government and trained more than 4,000 policemen on issues of human trafficking, such as identifying victims of trafficking, and this helps them be more effective in their enforcement efforts.

Ms Lim adds that with civil society educated on the matter of human trafficking, Hagar Singapore has received valuable tip offs from the public on potential human trafficking rings and victims in Singapore.

She notes that even businesses can play a part to help empower survivors of human trafficking. During the time that their cases are being processed, Hagar Singapore helps victims find temporary jobs so they can continue to work while assisting the government in the court proceedings. 

“When businesses provide jobs for survivors of human trafficking, survivors can gain new skills that will aid them in their economic development in the future,” says Ms Lim. 

A victim of human trafficking will…

According to Ms Lim, there are warning signs of human trafficking that members of the public could look for. Many victims do not have access to their passports or travel documents. Many are unable to explain what they do for a living or where they work and live. 

“You will see victims display fear or trepidation whenever these questions are brought up. A lot of times they are also unable to communicate effectively in English. In some cases, you will see very obviously visible bruises or cuts on their body. These are some of the common signs that they are victims of human trafficking,” says Ms Lim.

Not all the victims are as lucky as Lilis. She found two benefactors, firstly, in the man she was supposed to provide sex to, who told her to run; and the taxi driver who brought her to the police station.

Today, Lilis is back home training to become a hair and make-up artist and hopes to work in the film industry, helping to doll up celebrities. 

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