A significant day for the advancement of human rights in Singapore occurred on 30 November 2012: the signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). For a country with a reputation for resisting engagement with international human rights instruments, this was a step forward. Though the press release from the Ministry of Social and Family Development was positive, there was the usual reticence on the use of the language of rights. Perhaps indicative of Government’s attitude to the Convention’s implementation was the statement that: “Singapore agrees with the spirit of the Convention” (emphasis added), rather than any concrete plans to ratify the treaty or implement its obligations in legislation or policy terms. Singapore’s lukewarm commitment to the treaty (and the rights of disabled people), combined with broader silence from a range of government agencies including the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, highlights the lack of a holistic and strategic approach to the rights of disabled people broadly and the rights of disabled victims of human trafficking specifically.
In this two-part post, we intend to delve into the intersection between human trafficking and disability. Part One will focus on exploring the role of disability as a specific risk or vulnerability to trafficking, the challenges faced by this group from inequality and on the potential for protection provided by UNCRPD. Part Two will examine the specific application of the Convention to victims of trafficking, the impact that unstable migration status may have on the ability of disabled victims to access the rights provided for by the CPRD and the action states need to take to improve the provision of rights to this group.
There is relatively limited research on the intersection between human trafficking and disability, as noted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that intellectual and/or physical disability can heighten vulnerability to trafficking, an outcome catalysed by discrimination. The enjoyment by disabled people of stable employment, housing, healthcare, legal protection – the list is endless – is often inhibited by inequality and discrimination; a fact acknowledged by international human rights bodies. For example, in 1994, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in General Comment No. 5, emphasised the inequality faced by disabled people as well as the onus on states to address this inequality. Since 1994, there has been some, albeit limited, improvement in the respect, protection and fulfillment of disabled rights and a reduction in inequality. The Concluding Observations from the UN Committee on the Rights of Disabled People’s examination of China is indicative of the uneven nature of this implementation. The Committee noted the development of legislation for the legal protection of workers with disabilities from exploitation, violence and abuse but also encouraged China “to provide a legal definition of discrimination against persons with disabilities and include in such a definition the prohibition of indirect discrimination.” It is clear however that globally, states are failing to provide full and meaningful equality and non-discrimination to disabled people.
As well as state-sanctioned inequality, further challenges are provided by broader social attitudes about the value of disabled people, placing them at risk of abuse and violence. A recent UN study on violence against women and girls and disability cited research from the United Nations Children’s Fund which found that “children with disabilities are estimated to be 1.7 times more at risk of violence, including neglect, abandonment, abuse and sexual exploitation when compared with other children.” Disabled people are viewed, in many societies, as an unaffordable social and economic burden; this perceived lack of value ensures that the incentive to protect this group from abuse is undermined. Further, as highlighted thematically in the 2012 US Trafficking in Persons Report:
The stigma and marginalization of a person with disabilities creates a particular vulnerability. For example, parents who see no hope of jobs or marriage for their disabled children may place those children in exploitative situations with the intent of shedding a ’burden’ or seeking income.
A theme throughout much of the (limited) research on disabled people and trafficking is the exploitation of a physical disability by traffickers. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) noted that, for example, Roma women and girls with “physical, hearing or visual impairments [were] being trafficked into forced begging because a visible disability may have a stronger impact on public sympathy”. The US TiP report, in its 2012 report on Pakistan, cited examples of disabled Pakistani children and adults forced to beg in Iran. Disability may also be inflicted by traffickers for economic gain. The IOM found that “there are some reports of traffickers purposely mutilating their victims, particularly children, so they will be or appear disabled, or forcing them to sit in a wheelchair or to take drugs in order to appear disabled”. While this may showcase the extreme end of the spectrum, the relationship between physical disability and forced begging ensures that such practices can be lucrative for traffickers. Although this component of disability appears to affect one area of trafficking, clearly more investigation is needed to assess the relationship between physical disability and trafficking for other purposes.
If intersectionality is key to this post, then additional concerns must be raised about the compounded discrimination and subsequent vulnerability faced by disabled women or, as outlined by the IOM, disabled women from minority groups. Discriminatory attitudes flow into the control and coercion of victims, and function as an enabler, in the eyes of society, for this exploitation. For example, in societies rife with gender discrimination, the ability of disabled women to effectively report abuse or, when abuse is reported, have their voices heard, can be challenging. Further, the absence of either sex education or access to sexual health services can often leave disabled women disproportionally vulnerable to sexual exploitation and consequences of this exploitation, for example, through safe access to abortions.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities may experience difficulties in effectively or confidently articulating the nature of their exploitative situation. This was recently shown by the discovery of systematic and institutionalised abuse of people with learning disabilities in a British care home; 11 members of staff were subsequently convicted of offences of neglect and ill-treatment. The victims in this case faced substantial barriers in their ability to access assistance or challenge the abuse. Learning disabilities may impede the ability of an individual to assess a situation, for example, the veracity of a trafficker’s promise of employment or the validity of a contract. Further, the exploitation of disabled people is not just the remit of individuals, as shown by a 2012 case brought in the United States by Disability Rights Oregon and others on behalf of disabled workers against the State of Oregon in a claim relating to work undertaken at less than minimum wage in sheltered workshops. This capacity to evaluate and exit situations is further undermined when, as noted above, the families or carers of the individual may be complicit in their exploitation.
It is clear that globally, disabled people need additional protection from trafficking and exploitation. However, specific protections are largely absent from national and international policy and legal frameworks. There is no specific provision within the UN Protocol to Prevent, Supress and Punish Trafficking in Persons for those with disabilities or even an acknowledgement of their particular vulnerabilities or need for protection; a glaring omission.
At a national level, factors such as discrimination that lead to the marginalisation of disabled people similarly inhibit the provision of protections within legal and policy frameworks. In other words, it is often the case that policymakers lack the political will to create legislative protection and rights for a group they do not value or consider equal to ‘mainstream’ society. Conversely, as a result of the fairly robust equality regime in the UK, see the Equality Act 2010, there has been some acknowledgment of the correlation between disability and exploitation. For example, in the production of an awareness raising report entitled Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults Including Those with a Learning Disability from Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking in Derbyshire. The UK’s approach is arguably influenced by the development of a strong (though not failsafe) commitment to equality in legislation and policy terms, at both a national and regional level. It should also be noted that the UK’s focus on this area is primarily British citizens at risk of trafficking and exploitation and trafficking within the UK. There is far less focus on the vulnerability and protections required for non-British disabled people to these crimes; for example, the trafficking of, say, Asian victims with learning disabilities into the UK for domestic servitude.
The limited research on the shape and extent of the relationship between disability and trafficking is problematic. An in-depth study, focused on women with disabilities from Europe and Eurasia, undertaken by the US State Department, summed this up:
Informants’ lack of knowledge about WWD’s [women with disabilities] relative vulnerability to trafficking suggests that either trafficking in WWD is not a problem in the region, or that there is very little social awareness of it.
As Singapore takes its tentative steps toward strategic and effective interventions to prevent trafficking and engages with the rights of disabled people, a clear case can be made to include the intersection of these two issues as part of broader anti-trafficking initiatives. However, as noted above, Singapore’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities lacks teeth. Singapore declined to sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention, which would provide individuals, alleging violations of the Convention by Singapore’s authorities, with the right to submit complaints to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Singapore Government argued, in response to a Parliamentary Question on the Optional Protocol, that there were sufficient local platforms available for complaints to be raised. It is unclear how such platforms could be accessed for those with unstable migration status or victims of trafficking and exploitation. Further, Singapore has only signed and not yet ratified the treaty; being a signatory means Singapore intends to examine the treaty to determine its position towards it before ratification. While a signature does not bind a country to a treaty, it does result in an obligation to refrain from acts which might defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. However, this approach de-incentivises the State to develop positive legislative and policy steps to improve the rights of disabled people.
This is aptly shown in an answer to a Parliamentary Question about the legal and administrative mechanisms would enable the realisation of the Convention in Singapore. The Government’s response highlighted the existence of the ‘Enabling Masterplan Implementation Committee’ which primarily provides for feedback between Government and civil society rather than provides powers to implement change. While Singapore approach to the Convention is marked by cautious engagement, it is imperative that this caution, if it must exist at all, is used wisely to develop a holistic approach to implementing the rights of disabled people. In this respect, opportunity is provided for all Government agencies to mainstream equality principles through their work. While this will take many forms, it should enable the needs, voices and most importantly rights of disabled people to be acknowledged. Hence, the Convention should find resonance across the Ministry of Manpower, the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons among others.