Monday 23 June 2014

Singapore responds to US Trafficking in Persons Report 2014

'Progress made' to fight trafficking
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 22 Jun 2014

Singapore has made significant progress to combat human trafficking and is working to improve further, a government taskforce said yesterday.

The Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons was responding to criticism from the United States that not enough is being done, especially against labour trafficking.

The taskforce said it is helping Mr Christopher de Souza, a Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, on a Private Member's Bill against human trafficking, expected to be tabled in Parliament this year.

This would "empower agencies with the necessary powers and levers to deal with trafficking in persons more effectively", said the taskforce, which is spearheaded by the Home Affairs and Manpower ministries.

Singapore does not have dedicated laws against human trafficking, but outlaws sex trafficking of women and children through other legislation.

The annual Trafficking In Persons report, released by the US government last Friday, placed Singapore in Tier 2 of its four-tier ranking for the fourth year. This means Singapore has not fully complied with minimum standards to curb trafficking, but has made significant strides.

It said that while Singapore has improved in areas such as case referrals and criminal prosecution records, it remains a "destination country" for adults and girls from at least nine Asian countries being trafficked as sex workers or forced labour. It criticised the Government's "modest" efforts, where victims are protected on a case-by-case basis.

While those identified are not punished for crimes committed due to being trafficked - 42 victims were allowed to change employers and six acting as prosecution witnesses were granted temporary work permits - inadequate identification means some may have slipped through the cracks.

It noted there were disagreements on what amounted to trafficking. Only 93 cases, involving 228 victims, were determined to be trafficking, though human rights groups had flagged 867 cases involving an unknown number of victims.

The report also noted that the hefty debts low-wage workers incur to work in Singapore make them vulnerable to forced labour as they try to clear their debts.

"Foreign workers have credible fears of losing their work visas and being deported, since employers have the ability to repatriate workers at any time during their contracts with minimal notice," the report said. "Low-skilled workers face restrictions in seeking alternative employment or changing employers, and unscrupulous Singaporean employers can submit unfounded complaints about workers and encourage the Government to place employment bans on them.

"Some employers in Singapore have relied on repatriation companies to seize, confine, and escort foreign workers to the airport for departure from Singapore, including through the use of assaults, threats and coercion to prevent them from complaining about abuses to the authorities."

The US urged Singapore to enact laws to ban all forms of trafficking, increase specialised training for front-line officers and foster closer coordination with civil society groups.

The Singapore taskforce said it will study the report in detail. While it welcomed US efforts to highlight an important global issue, it called for a "more objective methodology... (to) ensure that a consistent, transparent, and measurable standard is applied to all countries".

Mr de Souza told The Sunday Times: "Even one case of human trafficking in Singapore is one case too many. With this in mind, the intention behind the Bill is to take into account the views of agencies, voluntary welfare groups and like-minded citizens to protect the vulnerable who have been trafficked and stamp out this evil practice."

Parliament: Progress in anti-trafficking fight
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

SINGAPORE takes a serious view of human trafficking crimes and has made "significant progress" in its fight against them, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday in a written reply.

Mr Teo, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, said that while Singapore acknowledges the efforts in producing the annual report, the US needs to adopt an objective and robust methodology that ensures a "consistent, transparent and measurable" standard is applied to all countries.

It should also take into account the different legal structures and domestic contexts of the countries covered in its report, he said.

Pledging Singapore's full commitment to fighting human trafficking, Mr Teo pointed to an inter-agency task force formed in 2010 to combat it. Since December last year, the Government has set up specialist investigation and prosecution teams to look into human trafficking cases. A mechanism has also been developed for civil society groups to refer potential cases to the authorities.

The Government is working closely with Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on his proposed Private Member's Bill against human trafficking, said Mr Teo.

Trafficking report needs global review

The United States recently released its annual Trafficking In Persons report, which evaluates the global fight against human trafficking (" 'Progress made' to fight trafficking"; June 22).

Singapore was placed in Tier 2 as the report found that it had not complied with the "minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking".

Though Singapore has taken steps to rectify the problem, these were deemed insufficient.

While the report's efforts to rally governments to end human trafficking are laudable, whose interests does it serve?

At best, it is a unilateral approach by one state in measuring different governments' efforts in the prevention of human trafficking.

There has been no mention of a review panel, or plans to subject the results to scrutiny by an international audience and government bodies.

For its conclusions to be recognised, and for human trafficking to be acknowledged as a global problem, the report should be subject to a review by an international panel. This will give it multinational credence.

Daphne Goh Huiqi (Ms)
ST Forum, 6 Jul 2014

KL, Bangkok hit back at US human trafficking report
The Straits Times, 23 Jun 2014

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia yesterday rejected harsh US criticism for failing to tackle human trafficking after an annual State Department report shamed the South-east Asian country, together with Thailand and Venezuela.

Bangkok has also said it is disappointed at being placed in the annual Trafficking in Persons report at the bottom of a list of countries accused of failing to address modern-day slavery - a designation which could trigger US sanctions.

The Foreign Ministry of Malaysia - a country that is a magnet for labourers and refugees from poorer regional countries - said combating "this heinous crime" was "still a work in progress".

"Malaysia has taken substantive measures in the past two years to improve the situation related to human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. In this light, the US State Department should reconsider its assessment on Malaysia," it said in a statement.

It also said it believed information used to prepare the report was "flawed, inaccurate" and "provided by dubious organisations".

The authorities in neighbouring Thailand have also hit back, saying they "respectfully disagree with the State Department's decision" and that the report "did not recognise our vigorous government-wide efforts that yielded unprecedented progress and concrete results".

But Ms Aegile Fernandez, director of Malaysian migrant labour rights organisation Tenaganita, said her group had been handling an increasing number of worker abuse and trafficking cases.

"We see very little progress" in fighting this, she said. "If you look at the human rights violations, it is terrible. You cannot deny that. We are really going down and down."

Malaysia and Thailand were downgraded to the so-called Tier 3 of the State Department's report, together with Venezuela and Gambia. The report released last Friday said Malaysia had ignored warnings to draw up a plan to comply with "the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking".

Nations such as Iran, North Korea and Syria already languish on the lowest tier.

US President Barack Obama can choose to impose sanctions on Tier 3 countries, but State Department officials acknowledged he had waived that option against China and Russia, which were downgraded last year.

The Philippines, which retained its Tier 2 ranking for trying to comply with "minimum standards" to eliminate trafficking, meanwhile vowed to do more after the US cited cases of children forced to perform sex acts for global Internet audiences.

"The government is doing its best to file these cases against human traffickers and to see that the prosecutions are properly done," President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Abigail Valte said on government radio.

The Philippines announced in January that it had dismantled, with the help of police in Britain and Australia, a paedophile ring that streamed live sexual abuse of Filipino children over the Internet, leading to 29 arrests.

An estimated 20 million to 27 million people are believed to live in slavery around the world.


US says Thailand, Malaysia, Venezuela among worst human trafficking centers
TODAY, 21 Jun 2014

WASHINGTON - The United States downgraded Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela to its list of the world's worst centers of human trafficking on Friday, opening up the countries to possible sanctions and dumping them in the same category as North Korea and Syria.

The three countries were all downgraded to the lowest "Tier 3" status in the U.S. State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report as they did not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

Thailand, one of Washington's oldest Asian treaty allies, expressed disappointment. Thai officials had expressed confidence their country would be upgraded, submitting a 78-page report to the U.S. government in April to make its case.

Acting Thai Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow asked the United States to reconsider its evaluation, saying category three was intended for countries "that have done nothing".

"It is up them to see whether we have made progress, up to them if they want to continue engaging constructively with Thailand, working together to ensure further progress," Sihasak told a news conference in Bangkok on Saturday.

"And it’s up to them to consider whether Thailand is an important ally in this part of the world."

The downgrades could cause some multinational companies to reconsider investments in industries accused of using trafficked labor such as fisheries, a lucrative business in Thailand, the world's largest exporter of shrimp.

The countries could also lose U.S. non-humanitarian and non-trade-related aid and face U.S. opposition to help from bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The report said the majority of trafficking victims in Thailand - "tens of thousands ... by conservative estimates" - were migrants from neighboring countries "forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or exploited in the sex trade." A significant number were trafficked into the fishing industry, garment production and domestic work.

The State Department cited media reports of "trafficking-related complicity by Thai civilian and navy personnel in crimes involving the exploitation" of Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar by the tens of thousands over the past year.

Those reports included a Reuters story in December that documented a clandestine Thai policy to remove Rohingya from immigration detention centers and deliver them to traffickers and smugglers waiting at sea. Many Rohingya were then ferried back to brutal trafficking camps in Thailand, where some died.

The State Department said that not only had the government "systematically" failed to prosecute trafficking into the fishing industry, but the Thai navy had also filed defamation charges against two journalists who reprinted reports of complicity of civilian and naval personnel in exploitation of Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar.

That was a reference to criminal defamation charges filed by Thailand's navy against two journalists at Phuketwan, a small English-language news website based in Phuket, which published excerpts from a July Reuters report.

The Reuters report, based on interviews with people smugglers and survivors of boat voyages, revealed how some Thai naval security forces worked with smugglers to profit from the surge in Rohingya fleeing religious persecution.

The Thai navy has also filed a criminal complaint against two Reuters journalists, alleging violations of the Computer Crimes Act. Reuters has not been charged and stands by its reporting, a Reuters spokesman said.

"We have seen interlocutors who we think are actually trying hard, but of course that gets dragged down by the widespread official complicity," said U.S. Ambassador at-Large Luis CdeBaca of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

"It’s kind of like an anchor that is holding the folks who seem to be wanting to make a difference back," he told Reuters.


Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela promote themselves as modern, fast-developing countries, but Tier 3 ranking puts them among the world’s most lawless, oppressive and dysfunctional.

A third of Tier 3 countries, among them Mauritania and Yemen, also appear on the United Nations list of least-developed nations. Some Tier 3 countries (Syria, Central African Republic) are at war; others (Zimbabwe, North Korea) are dictatorships.

Thailand's ambassador to the United States, Vijavat Isarabhakdi, cited data showing that in 2013, 225 trafficking defendants were convicted, more than four times the 2012 figure. At least 33 police and five high-ranking police officials had been punished or were subject to criminal processes.

The head of Thailand's ruling military council, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, vowed to crack down on trafficking. Thailand, he said in his weekly television address, must not "repeat the past flaws which created opportunities for influential groups and entrepreneurs to exploit, coerce and violate human rights.”

The State Department report said the Thai government had "demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes.

"Impunity for pervasive trafficking-related corruption continued to impede progress in combating trafficking," it said.

It found that Malaysia had made "inadequate efforts to improve its flawed victim-protection regime" and had investigated fewer trafficking cases than in 2012. Malaysia's downgrade had been largely expected.

The report said Venezuela had done too little to combat sex trafficking and forced labor and failed to produce a written plan to ensure compliance with minimum standards.

CdeBaca said the White House would decide on possible sanctions against Thailand within about 90 days. Last month, Washington canceled some security cooperation projects to protest against Thailand's military coup on May 22.


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