A key theme throughout our submission to the recent NPA consultation was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the need for in-depth, targeted and extensive research on trafficking in Singapore. Our concern was that the NPA had been based on what the Government thought the trafficking landscape looked like rather than on the result of an accurate examination of the current situation. The Government was aware of its limited knowledge so the final NPA, launched in March 2012, contains a provision for further research studies. But this provision raises a host of questions and issues.
There is currently some limited baseline data and research out there, held by both NGOs and Government. The difficulty arises in teasing out the relevant information. For example, it has been established that previous victims of trafficking in Singapore were considered immigration offenders and returned to their home countries. This means that there may be merit in looking at the records relating to young female immigration offenders who were discovered in brothel raids in Geylang and Jurong East. This information would allow Government to both build a picture of the size and nature of the sex industry in Singapore as well as develop data about trafficked and potentially trafficked groups within this industry. Similarly, some NGOs interview their clients, who may allege labour exploitation and/or trafficking, as part of each client’s needs assessment – information gathered through this process could, if standardised, provide a picture of both exploitation and trafficking issues in Singapore. While NGOs may not be able to share details of individual cases, they may be able to pull out patterns or themes which could be relevant or shared, confidentially, with relevant partners. This may seem like an expensive exercise, but if research is carried out well, from the start, then it will save money in the long run as it will allow service provision and other expenditure related to anti-trafficking measures to be more targeted.
We should point out there has been some research carried out on trafficking in Singapore – the landscape is not totally barren. The most concise understanding of trafficking in Singapore was a report produced by Dr Sallie Yea, together with ECPAT and supported by the Body Shop, in 2011. However, this report focused on the sexual exploitation of children and young people, with some focus on adult women. While there has also been some limited research carried out by Singaporean universities, there has not been a dedicated human trafficking research programme to date. Similarly, trafficking in Singapore has not been the focus of by academics, NGOs or inter-governmental agencies or researchers based outside Singapore, and so the number of reports, journal articles, seminar papers and statistics on trafficking in Singapore are very few.
Why is research so important? In essence, the trafficking scene is undefined, then it is very difficult, if not impossible, to develop well-targeted, value-for-money, successful anti-trafficking measures. Research shapes the kinds of intervention by the State, including the police, immigration authorities and other statutory agencies. For example, interviewing trafficked children and young people by law enforcement requires specific protections and safeguards for victims, and is very different from interviewing adult men. If there are trafficked children, law enforcement needs to know this to ensure the right policies are in place, including suitably trained staff to cater to the needs of this group. Further, research will shape the kind of shelters and associated care provisions, are needed for victims. Research shapes which government agencies are involved and with which communities, NGOs, religious organisations, and media outlets, among others, should be consulted, engaged and partnered. Research impacts upon funding, staffing and broader resources. In other words, it’s pretty fundamental to the entire endeavour!
Although research is often considered a secondary component to other anti-trafficking measures, we argue that these aspects should be carried out simultaneously – drawing on existing information to provide an approximate baseline, while developing specific research frameworks, so that data is recorded more accurately in the future and complimented by research on key areas.
While local NGOs may have limited capacity to research; some have produced insightful, robust and in-depth research in a range of areas including the access to justice for migrant workers and the difficulties faced by foreign brides. However, resource constraints combined with the arguably more pressing need for direct service provision has provided limitations to continued, extensive, and on-going research.
If this is the state of trafficking research in Singapore, then what factors should shape the research provision in the NPA?
Firstly, and this has been highlighted pretty consistently by a range of stakeholders, an agreed (and preferably internationally recognised) definition of trafficking needs to be used by both the State and NGOs to ensure consistency in research and policy development. This would streamline data collection and ensure that everyone is using the same framework for assessing trafficking individuals. The line between labour exploitation and trafficking is very fine. It is important that data collection clearly delineates between them. Similarly, data collection needs to acknowledge the specific experiences of children and young people in trafficking as well as gender issues.
Secondly, is the need to acknowledge the opportunity provided by the current absence of research. Starting from scratch inherently means that researchers must keep an open mind about the shape of trafficking in Singapore. So, for instance, while trafficking for commercial sexual or labour exploitation may be the main manifestations of trafficking in Singapore, room should also be given to consider the broadest possible range of trafficking scenarios. How big an issue is organ trafficking? Or trafficking for the purposes of forced marriages? Or trafficked fisherman? Or the trafficking of children for the purposes of adoption? To enable the best possible results to emerge, any research needs to be independent (though the fact this research may be government funded may impinge on independence), and appropriately and sustainably funded; it also needs to be uninhibited by the potentially contentious nature of the topic. Researchers need to think big and be prepared to plan accordingly.
Finally, it is vital that the Government’s research program enables a local capacity to conduct ongoing research on human trafficking. There is little merit in continually importing external experts, complete with their own research teams, if this knowledge is then exported when these experts leave Singapore. To really develop good research, local expertise needs to be engaged and developed. Skills and experience can be enhanced by international personnel, but the end goal should be to build local capacity. One way of doing this might be to develop scholarship programmes for students and academics to gain experience abroad or to promote (and fund) exchanges between, say, human trafficking NGOs in Singapore and Thailand.
This is a great opportunity for Singapore. Handled properly, with sensitivity and flexibility, there is the potential for trafficking research to not only achieve its goal of shaping effective policy interventions but also to blaze a trail in trafficking research globally.