The Trafficking Research Project (TTRP) has made a number of submissions to the Singapore Government on the issue of human trafficking. While we welcome the scrutiny provided by the TiP report and the role it plays in developing efforts to address human trafficking, we advocate that this process should be the subject of critique and evaluation. Our concerns focus on the absence of any acknowledgement of the need for research on trafficking in Singapore and the need to encourage contextualized good practice.
The Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, produced by the US State Department, provides an annual evaluation of how each government is addressing the issue of human trafficking. It functions as:
[The] U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking…[and]reflects the U.S. Government’s commitment to global leadership on this key human rights and law enforcement issue. … Freeing victims, preventing trafficking, and bringing traffickers to justice are the ultimate goals of the report and of the U.S Government’s anti-human trafficking policy.
The report plays a number of roles. For NGOs working on trafficking, irregular migration and related issues, the TiP report can provide a useful source of information, a tool for lobbying and advocacy and a benchmark for evaluation. For governments, increased compliance with the report can positively contribute to an ongoing dialogue with the United States. The TiP report plays a key role in shaping the debate about human trafficking as well as strategies, legislation, policies and initiatives to address it.
However, the TiP report is not without its critics. For example, Ann Gallagher provides a robust assessment of the report in her article, Improving the Effectiveness of the International Law of Human Trafficking: A Vision for the Future of the US Trafficking in Persons Reports and concluded:
[the] Report has demonstrated an alarming power to exacerbate negative impacts of anti-trafficking interventions, to nurture destructive and polarizing debates on seemingly intractable issues such as prostitution, and to damage the coherence and authority of an important and widely accepted international legal regime.
The Trafficking Research Project monitors the development of anti-trafficking initiatives by the Singapore Government. We have made several submissions to Government and co-convened and facilitated the NGO Forum on Human Trafficking. We acknowledge the important role played by the TiP report both in Singapore and more broadly. We also acknowledge that there is clearly more that needs to be done with regard to Singapore’s approach to, and implementation of, its anti-trafficking efforts. We are also concerned about the centrality of the US TiP report as the predominant view on trafficking in Singapore. To this end, our comments are directed at both the US State Department and the Singapore Government.
The absence of research as a key component of prevention
As noted in our submissions to the Singapore Government, the lack of research on the state of trafficking is an issue of serious concern. As such, we welcomed the inclusion within the National Plan of Action (NPA) of a commitment to conduct research studies. Our understanding is that the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons (the Taskforce) is currently deliberating the shape and substance of this research.
It is disappointing to find absent from the TiP report any reference to research (given that it claims to be a research report), particularly in its recommendations on prevention. US policy should be concerned with promoting robust research efforts nationally and internationally as a method of establishing a better understanding of human trafficking and appropriate measures to tackle this problem.
Notably absent from the TiP report were comments on the lack of reliable data on trafficking in Singapore; the lack of transparency regarding how this data is obtained, collated and analysed; the limited availability of funding for trafficking research by civil society organisations (NGOs, think tanks, academia) and the negative consequences of these issues on anti-trafficking efforts in Singapore. Similarly, we are aware of several instances in which the Taskforce chose not to engage with research on trafficking – including silence regarding requests to assist in launching a report on trafficked fisherman as well as a report on adult women in the sex industry. Such issues went unnoticed in the TiP report, since the report did not review research initiatives.
The need to increase data collection, alongside policy evaluation, directly correlates with the ability of Government and NGOs to direct services and resources appropriately to effectively address human trafficking. Indeed, the Singapore Government’s response to the TiP report stated: ‘Another challenge Singapore faces is that the concept of “human trafficking” is not widely understood, or misunderstood here’. A clear indication of the need to encourage research.
The ripple effect of research should not be underestimated. Trafficking research has the potential to increase the transparency and accountability required of governments. The process encourages an assessment of resource allocation and decision-making, ensuring that lessons can be drawn and future mistakes avoided. As governments often control funding for research initiatives as well as the dissemination of publicly available information, it plays a critical role in allowing researchers to exercise other fundamental rights, including freedom of information and freedom of expression. Ignoring or undervaluing research undermines efforts to achieve proposed recommendations (as well as NPA objectives), such as the need to increase public awareness of trafficking. Equally, support for local research increases the capacity within a state’s academic institutions, NGOs and media, and contributes to the development of regional and global partnerships. Here researchers are able to participate in the global dialogue on trafficking and further ensure that lessons can be drawn from the experiences of other jurisdictions.
Our concerns are magnified by the clear reliance of the TiP report on the work of local researchers. Due to the limited nature of the research/NGO community, these citations are easy to spot. For example:
Some women are recruited through offers of legitimate employment and deceived about the nature or conditions of the prospective work. Others enter Singapore with the intention of engaging in prostitution but upon arrival are subjected to forced prostitution under the threat of serious harm, including financial harm.
The original text reads:
[…] trafficking occurs in two forms. First, those who are deceived about both the type of work they will be doing (i.e., not knowing they will be entering prostitution or other forms of sexual labour) and the conditions of that work. Second, those who know they will be working in prostitution and/ or other forms of sexual labour, but are deceived about the conditions associated with this work.’ (ECPAT International and Dr Sallie Yea, Commercial Sexual Exploitation and trafficking of children and young people in Singapore, Research Report: 2010, pg. 48)
While it is positive that the TiP authors are engaging with local organizations and individuals, it seems inappropriate that relevant credit is not given to them, especially considering the financial and other pressures under which they operate. Current local capacity for research is limited – inclusion in the TiP report lends validity to their findings, but that validity is overshadowed lost by the lack of acknowledgment. We understand that this is the result of a concerted effort by the authors of the TiP report to protect sources, but we would argue for greater transparency throughout both the report itself and the methodology used by the TiP authors. Source confidentiality in Singapore could be easily confirmed with individuals; not to mention it would lend support to the credibility of the TiP report as well as acknowledge the work of researchers that aided its publication.
Where the TiP report comments on specific programmatic outputs of the Singapore Government, no mention is made of the need to evaluate this work. This undermines recommendations set out in the report; specifically, the analysis pertaining to Singapore appears underwhelmed by a variety of government initiatives, which we believe could be advanced through well-developed research. For example, the report notes difficultly related to the identification of victims, the definition of trafficking and awareness-raising. The TiP report further notes the efforts made by Government to engage with vulnerable fisherman. This group is notoriously hard to reach and often ignored by outreach efforts, therefore there would have been benefit in including a recommendation to conduct additional research with this group and evaluate (and share) any existing work.
Specific issues: Encouraging best practice and innovative methods of working
The TiP report states:
In February 2012, the Singapore Interagency Task Force released for public comment its National Plan of Action, which was crafted after an extensive consultative process with local NGOs involved in anti-trafficking issues and the protection of migrant workers and an open comment period seeking broader input from foreign governments and other international stakeholders.
As we noted in our submission to the NPA, the consultation process could have been improved. While there was a consultation process with NGOs, these organizations were picked by Government to participate. The ‘open comment period’ in fact only lasted for 10 days which is far too short to really engage either NGOs or the wider public. Equally, this process was not widely advertised. As a result, the submissions received by Government were from those already engaged in anti-trafficking or related work. There is thus a clear premise for the TiP report to comment on the need for improvement in Government-citizen engagement.
We are also concerned about recommendations linked to unsubstantiated evidence. For example, the TiP report states: ‘The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in Singapore’s commercial sex industry.’ Sex work is legal in Singapore and subsequently the subject of relevant legislation and regulations. Our concern here is that the report appears to be advocating that an appropriate strategy to counter sex trafficking is to reduce the demand for legal commercial sex. This is not a proven strategy to effectively end human trafficking. Moreover, considering the influential nature of the TiP report, any recommendations should take into account best practice as well as local context.
A way forward
Singapore has a newly-developed National Plan of Action and is in a position to develop an understanding of human trafficking, which includes building local capacity to conduct and evaluate research. An essential component of any prevention strategy should be ongoing, sustainable research. Broadly, we believe the US State Department should advocate for research when informing state-based recommendations in addressing human trafficking. There should also be an assessment within the TiP report of local government initiatives to undertake and/or support research as well as the kind of environment in which research can and should take place, with particular reference to the collection and accessibility of data.
We call on the Singapore Government to strengthen its approach to the issue of human trafficking in Singapore, as set out in the NPA, beyond the recommendations of the TiP report. Although the purpose of the TiP report is to focus on the activities of governments, the Singapore Government does a disservice to its trafficking policy if it takes those recommendations in isolation from the often invaluable work of direct service providers, researchers and grassroots activists. Inherent within this is the need to robustly engage with the development, support and facilitation of research, a fundamental element of any national trafficking response.