When it comes to creating and politically capitalizing on a narrative constructed around societies’ most marginalized, the field of human trafficking has proven to be a ripe space in which to showcase the “plight” of the most aggrieved. However, in perpetuating a narrow shadow of victimhood, gaps remain in policy and service provision – not to mention research – in the intersections between various potentially underserved groups affected by labor exploitation. In this regard, we are left wondering about the imprint of noticeable silence on the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) community.
Little information is available pertaining to either policies or service provision to assist LGBT trafficked persons, globally or locally. Research in related areas does exist on the intersections between the LGBT communities regarding their status as: migrants, sex workers, even asylum seekers; but the dearth of research regarding the specific relationship between trafficking (or even migrant labor exploitation) and LGBT community speaks volumes. The discourse at large appears to be non-existent from both academia and NGOs.
Occasionally, statistics on these adjunct areas of research appear to influence trafficking media, such as those extrapolated from the research on gay and trans child sexual exploitation and homelessness from the Center for American Progress. More directly, there are intermittent media reports specific to LGBT trafficking issues, including recent reports of men from Kenya trafficked into Qatar. Qatar (where there is no human trafficking law) is considered a point of transit and destination for human trafficking. While Kenya has anti-trafficking legislation, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and Kenya. As a consequence, men feel they are unable to report abuse to the police.
On the surface, this latter case provides a few striking parallels to Singapore. Although arguably undertaking some positive change (albeit hesitantly), Singapore’s relationship with the LGBT community has been underscored by a historic trajectory rife with discrimination, including Section 377A, which criminalizes gay sex. The Government has yet to implement a human trafficking law and the State is also considered to be a point of transit and destination for trafficking. Compounded by an increasingly anti-foreigner rhetoric in Singapore, LGBT individuals may face intersectional discrimination based on their gender and/or sexual identity in conjunction with their status as foreigners. This may also intersect with other identities, for example, discrimination faced by LGBT sex workers – local and foreign.
More broadly, when specific anti-discrimination provisions aren’t legislated, one is left with little legal recourse to pursue justice if any claims one makes based on identity is not protected. Moreover, personal incentives to disclose one’s sexual or gender identity in the context of service provision can be compromised by a lack of trust in the law. This not only undermines a victim-centered approach, but affects targeted resources for anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation measures, reliant on accurate data procurement and informed policymaking.
Current policy choices also fly directly in the face of anti-discrimination protections enshrined in international law, in addition to more inclusive regional changes. Most recently, the Yogyakarta Principles, developed and adopted by the UN, inform the application of binding international legal standards in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. As a member of ASEAN and the UN, and as part of its international obligations as a signatory of CEDAW and the CRC, we would strongly urge Singapore to utilize these principles to inform policy and service provision – for our purposes, this would include the application of these principles to the human trafficking framework outlined in the National Plan of Action. For instance, Principle 11, states:
Everyone is entitled to protection from trafficking, sale and all forms of exploitation, including but not limited to sexual exploitation, on the grounds of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Measures designed to prevent trafficking shall address the factors that increase vulnerability, including various forms of inequality and discrimination on the grounds of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, or the expression of these or other identities. Such measures must not be inconsistent with the human rights of persons at risk of being trafficked.
Principle 12, concerned with working conditions, is also pertinent here: “Everyone has the right to decent and productive work, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment, without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity”.
If and when preconceptions are perpetuated regarding the nature of trafficking itself (relegated to sex) or victims (relegated to women, children), the capacity of law enforcement and care providers to intervene, as well as the impact of those preventions, should be called into question. In other words, labor exploitation, including sex work, can enable opportunities for exploitation in various forms and stages. For instance, in Singapore, the non-payment of wages and abandonment after injury are the two most common problems facing low-wage migrant workers. Moreover, even in countries promoting rigorous anti-discrimination policies and protections, establishing cases of labor exploitation and abuse is already notoriously difficult. What might be the implications for authorities in contexts unreceptive to the rights of LGBT communities? This is not limited to Singapore, of course. In Northern Ireland it’s been reported that LGBT migrants undergoing a range of migratory vulnerabilities and fear disclosure of their sexual and/or gender identity based on perceptions of homophobia and discrimination by State authorities.
In addition to negotiating potential discrimination encountered during an intervention or reporting phase, discrimination, or perceived discrimination, may prove to be an additional barrier to an individual accessing or receiving service provision. For instance, as we’ve previously written, providing services catered to LGBT (or other) groups may prove problematic for NGOs not explicitly committed or trained to do so. This is especially relevant to groups receiving government funding to assist all victims of human trafficking. Even the perception of certain groups, such as the Salvation Army, by individuals needing assistance could call into question the impact of that service provider on human trafficking victims – including the ability to successfully provide social services and advocate.
Government as a service provider here is no exception. Northern Ireland’s Health Minister’s views of the LGBT community and blood donation can only leave one to imagine the sensitive level of care which would be received by, say, individuals trafficked into sexual exploitation. As for Singapore, according to Sayoni’s Shadow CEDAW Report,
healthcare providers in Singapore tend to assume that patients are heterosexual and this can result in inappropriate or compromised care. Due to fear of social stigma, queer women may withhold crucial health information, such as their sexual activities, that might lead to damaging misdiagnosis or oversight.
For individuals who have experienced abuse at the hands of their employer or under the conditions of their employment, especially that regarding their reproductive or sexual health, inappropriate or compromised care could have devastating consequences.
In Singapore, LGBT advocacy groups are not officially recognized, which affects the capacity of an organization to function fully and may also, in some contexts, inhibit a lack of visible support from the NGO community broadly as LGBT issues are relegated to the margins. However, expertise in this area is sorely needed, given the demographics of the Singaporean sex work industry as well as the increasing debate about and treatment of migrant workers.
So we leave with a question: in the intersections of race, poverty, gender identity and sexuality, what is considered good policy or practice regarding the treatment of LGBT trafficked persons?