Home » Policy » A response to the United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2013: Singapore

A response to the United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2013: Singapore

The Trafficking Research Project (TTRP) has made a number of submissions to the Singapore Government on the issue of human trafficking. We monitor the development of anti-trafficking developments in Singapore, including initiatives by the Anti-Trafficking Taskforce and partners in the NGO Forum on Human Trafficking. As advocated in our submission, A Response To The United States Trafficking In Persons Report (2012) Specifically As It Relates To Singapore[1], we welcome the US State Department’s (DOS) TIP Report as a tool to assess how the Singapore Government addresses human trafficking. We acknowledge the role played by the report locally; namely its function as the only publicly available annual assessment of trafficking in Singapore.

We recognise the necessity for improvement in Singapore’s approach to, and implementation of, its anti-trafficking efforts. We also continue to have concerns about the methodology used in the development of the TIP report and the subsequent impact on the shape of anti-trafficking initiatives in Singapore, including the absence of a recommendation for local, contextual research. As such, our response is addressed to both the US State Department and the Singapore Government.


The Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce recently published an official statement in response to the 2013 US TIP Report, including key achievements, and we acknowledge the efforts made toward implementing the National Plan of Action (NPA) over the course of 2012. However, much remains to be done. The areas requiring specific attention include:

  • substantial collaboration with NGOs to enhance service provision, policy development and implementation;
  • greater transparency about the steps Government is taking to effectively address trafficking; and
  • increased Government accountability, including, for example, the release of relevant statistics on labor exploitation and trafficking.

Substantial Engagement with Civil Society

According to the Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce’s official response to the TIP Report, issued 24 June 2013: “The Taskforce continued to actively engage various stakeholders, including CSOs [Civil Society Organizations], Embassies and academia, to hear their views and develop a more effective and sustainable strategy to combat TIP”. In conjunction with the core NPA objectives on Partnership (in particular Initiatives 27-30), we are deeply concerned about the virtual absence of engagement by the Taskforce with local NGOs, despite repeated requests by NGOs to meet and regularize contact between stakeholders. As far as TTRP is aware, other than one meeting held in January 2012, the Government has been noticeably silent regarding the implementation of the NPA, undercutting its own priorities in establishing meaningful, ongoing collaboration.

The newly-established public awareness funding is touted as an achievement by Government to support anti-trafficking initiatives. However, embedded in the grant is a 50 per cent matching requirement. This requirement obligates organizations to front 50 percent of the cost incurred for proposed projects. Not only does this limit the number of applicants that are able to provide expertise on the issue, such as small to medium sized service providers, which are often capacity-strapped, it effectively requires anti-trafficking organizations to subsidize, what should be, Government-led initiatives with their own funds. TTRP argues this grant in fact reinforces a lack of genuine interest by the Taskforce to develop local capacity and a range of expertise. Moreover, there is a need to assess, and fund the assessment of, the impact of any awareness raising activity; both on the general public as well as systemic capacity to handle increased reporting of potential cases.

Additionally, our experience with other organizations reflects concerns by local service providers with the referral process, primarily regarding the lack of transparency. Once cases of potential trafficking are referred to the Government, information about those cases is not usually relayed to either the direct service provider/referrer or the potential victim. While the Government has expressed an interest in streamlining the internal (inter-agency) referral process, its reliance on NGOs and other parties (such as researchers) to refer cases of exploitation, requires a holistic approach to service provision. In this regard, it should also take into account that “the pursuit of justice”, which may focus on expedited criminal investigations may not appropriately take into account victims’ interests. Due to a focus on migration and labor offences, Singapore law enforcement may not integrate a victim-centered approach, which takes into account trust building and mechanisms for protection (housing, safety, healthcare, the ability to continue employment) during investigations and prosecutions. Direct collaboration with service providers would enhance the development of these processes, for instance in the provision of social worker assistance in the identification of exploited workers, access to legal assistance and safe repatriation.

Transparency should be an essential element in developing and implementing the Government’s anti-trafficking strategy. The incorporation of civil society expertise on the issue not only increases efficacy, but also upholds principles of accountability. Tied to that accountability is regularized procedures for reporting to stakeholders and, where appropriate, the public more broadly. Making policy updates known primarily through media outlets rather than through communication to stakeholders indicates the absence of a commitment to a direct dialogue with parties directly servicing vulnerable communities.

Underlying the principles of collaboration and transparency is an ongoing need to challenge existing assumptions about human trafficking locally. The reliance, in Singapore, for instance on the focus on “crime syndicates”, despite research indicating other types of informal actors complicit in trafficking[2]; the use of the term “bona fide victims” and the impact this may have on a victim-centered approach; and the incorporation of anti-trafficking priorities across related government policies such as a Rest Day for Foreign Domestic Workers and recent amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act[3].

Prevailing Absence of Local Research on Trafficking in Singapore

No known Government-backed research objectives[4] have been implemented to date. As noted above, the TIP Report is the only publicly available annual assessment of human trafficking in Singapore. Government data collection and analysis suffers from a lack of transparency. The Government has only been released official statistics and policy progress for the first time in tandem with the publication of the TIP Report. This occurred in the form of the aforementioned official statement from the Government, a recent interview with the Straits Times on 30 June[5], and various press on the announcement of funds disbursed under the TIP Public Awareness Grant.

The lack of local research capacity on human trafficking exhibited at all levels (academic, NGO and Government), noted in our previous submissions to Government as well as our 2012 Statement on the TIP report, remains of serious concern. Additionally, academic and NGO research on human trafficking is currently inhibited by a dearth of funding. Although the TIP Report notes the Singapore Government allocated $160,000 for three research projects (on the scope of trafficking in Singapore; the experiences of sex and labor trafficked victims; and international best practice), these research projects will not run concurrently and the Government has not indicated when or if the results of these projects, will be made publicly available. Publically accessible data is necessary to allow additional research to prove such research is reliable and can be replicated to enhance programmatic efficacy. Moreover, as the Government begins to collect some quantitative (criminal justice based) data on human trafficking, a deficit of reliable, disaggregated data on victims, such as age, remains.

This data collection extends beyond statistics to operational protocols and methodology. For instance, as disaggregated statistics on victims has not been made available, victim identification procedures (which feed into data collection) remain unknown. While standard operating procedures for trafficking victim identification were supposedly devised, we are not sure what they are or about the effectiveness of implementing those procedures and subsequent identification.

Of parallel concern is the lack of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in place for current anti-trafficking policies. In particular, the Straits Times article noted above focuses on enforcement efforts to “combat human trafficking”, reporting 3,567 raids on commercial sex establishments; leading to 203 arrests of “pimps”. As TTRP has previously advocated, raids are not a proven anti-trafficking strategy, and may actually do more harm to potential victims (and sex workers). The article mentions nothing about labor trafficking efforts or what happens once “action is taken”. Since the Government itself provides no additional information on this process – publically or to service providers – it is difficult to ascertain the impact on human trafficking locally. Robust data collection and policy evaluation directly affect appropriate resource allocation and service provision.

To obtain an accurate picture of human trafficking in Singapore, which would inform State responses, enable the development of best practice, and assist in improving transparency and accountability, the Government should fund a wider pool of research programs developed by a range of organizations and researchers working on issues such as labor exploitation, migration, sex work as well as trafficking. As noted above, it is important that this research is regularly and consistently made publicly available. Further, within this research, TTRP advocates the need for the evaluation of both Government initiatives and partnership initiatives funded by the Government, such as the recent grants given to public awareness projects. Greater support for research would encourage much-needed expertise on human trafficking and enable Singapore to build on international collaboration.


As an annual evaluative tool produced to assess human trafficking, we believe the US DOS TIP Report methodology should be accountable and open to scrutiny, particularly as its stated methodology leaves much to the imagination[6] for both generalized as well as country-specific data collection.

Broadly, we firmly believe the State Department should wield its diplomatic influence to promote long-term sustainable context-based research in shaping strategies to effectively address human trafficking. This is especially relevant to any prevention strategy. Particularly in Singapore, where a knowledge base on human trafficking is only beginning to take shape on the ground and among policymakers, the Embassy could do more to stress the importance of undertaking robust research by local researchers and organizations. As an evaluation mechanism, we have previously argued the merit of assessing “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.” This issue remains outstanding.

The US DOS should utilize existing expertise and evidence-based research in the promotion of anti-trafficking strategies advocated globally within the TIP report[7]. For example, as previously advocated by TTRP, and others, the focus on recommendations linking the reduction of human trafficking to the demand for commercial sex. Specific to Singapore, these assumptions about the nature of sex trafficking and sex work result in confusing reporting in the TIP Report. For instance, the section on Singapore leads with the following statement:

Some foreign women are recruited through offers of legitimate employment and deceived about the nature or conditions of the prospective work in Singapore. 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.

In fact, both women and men are recruited through deceptive practices; this is also not a phenomenon confined to sex work. Moreover, the latter sentence conflates the notion of voluntary versus forced sex work; as well as the distinctions between “force” and “coercion”.

Currently, research shows the negative impact that this approach can have on sex workers, particularly in driving sex work further underground and/or impacting the ability of service providers to provide valuable outreach, such as that related to health. Further, there is an established concern about the lack of robust evidence as to the efficacy of this strategy in addressing human trafficking. As Ann Jordan notes, “[The US State Department] needs to ensure that its own statements, recommendations, and observations in speeches, reports and other materials are based on objective, replicable evidence and, if none is available, to say so”[8].

As for raising public awareness, the TIP report overlooks a valuable recommendation. While in Singapore it promotes, for instance, public awareness campaigns, it neglects to stress that monitoring and evaluation mechanisms should form a necessary component of such initiatives. In fact, while the report points to the limitations in programmatic outcomes, it stops short of advocating the inclusion of monitoring and evaluation in research and policy development. For instance, “The government maintained a dedicated help line for foreign domestic workers in distress, but the government did not report whether this line received any trafficking-related calls during the year.” If one objective of the TIP Report is to promote awareness-raising as an anti-trafficking strategy, then assessments of such recommendations should be part and parcel of the TIP Report (as it is with other State Department and USAID funded anti-trafficking initiatives).


The Singapore Government argues in response to the TIP Report that, “inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have arisen from the lack of an objective methodology to take into account laws and domestic context in other countries that are different from the United States.” However, these “inaccuracies and misrepresentations” remain unclear and unaddressed.

This submission highlights some flaws TTRP perceives in the current approach adopted by the US DOS to its global anti-trafficking work. Consistently failing to address methodology problems provides ammunition for governments seeking to disregard recommendations. To this end, we encourage the US DOS to consider the concerns raised and to address the challenges they pose. A more strategic and nuanced approach to the diplomatic influence that this report represents is beneficial in the Singapore context in assisting and enhancing both Governmental and civil society’s capacity to address human trafficking.

The Trafficking Research Project stresses the paramount importance of improving collaboration between the government and anti-trafficking NGOs in Singapore to inform policymaking. To effectively develop a response to trafficking in Singapore, the Government needs to reconsider the current shape and depth of its engagement with civil society broadly, and service providers particularly. As illustrated above, this engagement should be: open and transparent with information on processes, actions and statistics shared with NGOs on a regular basis. This information also needs publically available, and presented in an objective and coherent matter to further strengthen efforts to stop human trafficking. Secondly, the expertise that currently existing among service providers needs to be acknowledged and engagement between stakeholders should seek to develop this capacity by, for example, enhancing opportunities for robust research on trafficking in Singapore through information sharing and funding. Further, funding made available to NGOs should be devised in a way that seeks to develop the capacity of local organizations to meet their programmatic objectives rather than dictate the work produced. Finally, the Government needs to make a far greater commitment to its monitoring and evaluation efforts so policies and future legislation is well targeted, evidenced and thus, more effective.

Singapore offers the potential to be a regional leader in addressing human trafficking. However, it seems set on paying only lip service to both its international obligations and its own National Action Plan. TTRP encourage the Government to re-evaluate the approach taken thus far and consider the benefits of a more transparent, holistic and strategic approach to this problem.

[2] See, for example, HOME, FDW Trafficking Research Report, December 2012 available at: http://home.org.sg/downloads/FDW-Trafficking-Research-Report-2012.pdf

[4] Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, National Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons 2012 – 2015, March 2012 Initiative 8: “Conduct Research studies…to better understand the TIP situation”

[5] “More Being Done To Fight Human Trafficking”, Straits Times, 30 June 2013. http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/more-being-done-fight-human-trafficking-20130630

[6] Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, DOS, Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, Definitions and Methodology, http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2013/210543.htm

[7] Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, DOS, Prevention: Fighting Sex Trafficking by Curbing Demand for Commercial Sex Acts, Factsheet, 1 June 2013 http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/fs/2013/211633.htm

[8] Ann Jordan, 2011 State Department Trafficking in Persons Report: A need for more evidence and U.S. accountability, 25 June 2011, http://rightswork.org/2011/07/2011-state-department-trafficking-in-persons-report-a-need-for-more-evidence-and-u-s-accountability/


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