The Offence of Human Trafficking in Singapore and Its Penalties

Last updated on June 10, 2021

World Day against Trafficking in Persons vector

Southeast Asia is infamous for being the epicentre of human trafficking or Trafficking-In-Persons (TIP). According to a report by the International Organisation for Migration, approximately one-third of the global trafficking trade, or about 200,000 women and children, are trafficked annually from Southeast Asia.

Singapore too, has served as a destination country, and sometimes as a transit country, for human trafficking activities.

Transit countries refer to countries that the trafficked persons travel through, or stay in for a temporary period before moving on to the final destination, i.e. the destination country.

According to the Singapore Inter-Agency task force led by the Ministries of Home Affairs and Manpower to combat human trafficking in Singapore, ever since the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA) was enacted in 2015, a total of 11 cases of human trafficking have been prosecuted as of 2019. 8 related to sex trafficking while the remaining 3 were related to labour trafficking.

This article will shed light on:

The following infographic is a summary of the offence of human trafficking, the types of human trafficking and its penalties in Singapore (you may click on the image to download it in a new tab):

Human Trafficking Infographic

What is the Offence of Human Trafficking in Singapore?

According to section 3(1) of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA), a person is said to have committed the offence of human trafficking in Singapore if he/she recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives an individual (other than a child) for the purpose of exploitation (whether in Singapore or elsewhere) by means of:

  • Threat or use of force, or any other form of coercion;
  • Abduction;
  • Fraud or deception;
  • Abuse of power;
  • Abuse of the individual’s vulnerability; or
  • Bribes.

If the victim is a child (i.e. under 18 years old), they will be considered to have been trafficked even if the offender had not coerced, abused their power or bribed the victim when recruiting them. It also does not matter whether the offender was the victim’s parent, or that the victim had consented to being recruited.

Regardless of whether the victim is a child or adult, human trafficking can occur even if the victim had not been brought across any borders. In May 2021 for example, a 25-year-old man pleaded guilty to human trafficking for sexually exploiting a 13-year-old girl. This was even though the offender had not brought the victim out of Singapore throughout the period of exploitation.

Difference between human trafficking and migrant smuggling

At this point, it is important to distinguish human trafficking from migrant smuggling.

Migrant smuggling focuses on the act of transporting people, for the purpose of illegal entry into a certain country, as opposed to the exploitation of individuals (explained below) in human trafficking.

Furthermore, unlike the case of migrant smuggling where individuals may have consented to being transported into a country, consent of the individual is irrelevant in human trafficking. This is especially since the individual’s consent to be transported into the country might have been obtained via coercion or deceptive actions of the trafficker.

Who are Involved in Human Trafficking?

The people involved in human trafficking comprise of a wide range of criminals and criminal syndicates that exploit the victims for profit.

They usually are of the same nationality as that of the victim and are often someone that the victim knows personally, such as a friend or relative. As a result, the victim initially places a lot of trust in the trafficker, who consequently takes advantage of the victim’s vulnerabilities.

Women who were victims of trafficking might also become perpetrators themselves to put an end to their victimisation. They might be forced by the traffickers into procuring more victims in exchange for payment, or being let off from sexual exploitation.

Types of Human Trafficking and Why They Occur

Human trafficking is often fuelled by the economic principles of demand and supply.

First, there is a constant demand for low-wage workers, who are forced to work for little remuneration via threats of violence or confiscation of their identification documents, or even threats to report them to immigration authorities if they are in the country illegally.

Next, there is an increase in demand for commercial sex, which has led to the trafficking of children who are sexually abused, exploited or forced into prostitution.

Finally, factors such as extreme poverty, lack of access to education and job opportunities, and age-old traditions like child marriage, contribute to the prevalence of human trafficking. For example, parents who cannot afford to send their female children to school may sell them off to men for marriage.

Most of the trafficking activities in Singapore are related to sex, forced labour and child trafficking. This may be a result of traffickers capitalising on Singapore’s flourishing economic landscape to deceive victims into thinking that they may obtain work opportunities here.

1. Trafficking women for sexual exploitation

Women are tricked into leaving their home countries for Singapore with offers of legitimate employment. Such offers might be unlawfully extended by unethical recruitment agencies.

Victims would then be forced into debt after being charged exorbitant recruitment fees for administrative work, such as processing visas, procuring photographs, identification documents and medical examination documents, in preparation for their work abroad.

Victims may also be tricked into signing contracts that contain terms that they did not initially agree upon. As a result, they may end up working in a job that they did not sign up for and/or receive a far less pay than what had been promised.

Upon arriving in Singapore, their travel documents are confiscated, and they may then be coerced into engaging in sex work to pay off the debt they had incurred in the form of travel and recruitment fees.

2. Trafficking for forced labour

Victims may also be trafficked into Singapore for the purposes of non-sex related work. They often engage in construction work, as well as domestic or other labour-intensive jobs.

After reaching Singapore, traffickers would tell the victims that they have incurred a large amount of debt, in the form of recruitment, transportation, visa and commendation fees, and that there would be interest imposed on the original debt.

Furthermore, traffickers may warn victims that the traffickers will impose fines and penalties if the victims fail to work for a prescribed number of hours or fail to produce a target number of goods. Over time, the debt incurred increases to the extent that victims may find themselves unable to ever pay off the entire debt owed, resulting in debt bondage.

Debt bondage occurs when a person is forced to pay off a loan by working for an unspecified period of time for little remuneration. Workers may also be tricked into working in Singapore, and upon arrival, being forced to work under conditions of slavery.

3. Child trafficking

According to child protection network ECPAT International, over 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide for sexual exploitation and cheap labour annually. Some child victims are trafficked to Singapore from neighbouring countries in Asia, such as the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and China.

Children are usually preyed on since they are oblivious to the perils of trafficking and due to a general lack of protection by adults in their home countries. Neglect, especially by the child’s family, often results in the child being vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

There is also a number of Singaporean sex tourists who travel overseas to engage in child sex, possibly contributing to an increase in the number of children being trafficked to serve this demand.

How are Human Traffickers Penalised in Singapore?

There are 3 types of offences related to human trafficking in Singapore, namely:

  1. Human trafficking;
  2. Abetment of human trafficking; and
  3. Receiving payment in connection with the exploitation of a trafficked victim.

All 3 offences carry the same maximum penalty of 10 years in jail, up to a $100,000 fine and up to 6 strokes of the cane. A repeat offender would face stiffer penalties, with the maximum penalties being 1.5 times of what a first offender might receive.

In 2016, a 25-year-old student was jailed for 6 years and 3 months, and fined $30,000, for recruiting 2 girls for sexual exploitation and receiving part of their earnings from them.

Human trafficking

Section 4(2)of the PHTA lists the aggravating factors that the court may take into account in determining the appropriate punishment to be meted out for the offence of human trafficking under section 3 of the PHTA. These aggravating factors include:

  • The offence involved serious injury to or the death (including death by suicide) of the trafficked victim or another individual;
  • The trafficked victim was particularly vulnerable due to pregnancy, illness, infirmity, disability or any other reason, and the offender was aware of this;
  • The trafficked victim was a child;
  • The offence exposed the trafficked victim to a life-threatening illness;
  • The offence involved actual or threatened use of a weapon or drug;
  • The offender was a public servant;
  • The offender was the trafficked victim’s spouse or conjugal partner; or
  • The offender had abused a position of trust or authority in relation to the trafficked victim.

Abetment of human trafficking

People who abet human traffickers are not spared from punishment and would also be held liable. According to section 5 of the PHTA, an abettor is one who:

  • Provides instruction to another person to commit trafficking;
  • Provides any form of financial assistance, transport, shelter or accommodation to facilitate trafficking; or
  • Performs any act to promote exploitation of the victim, such as participating or assisting in the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receiving of victims, or employing these victims.

According to MP Christopher De Souza during the Second Reading speech on the Prevention of the Human Trafficking Bill, the main intention behind section 5 of the PHTA is to target:

“Ringleaders and masterminds who order their subordinates to carry out the trafficking acts, as well as middlemen who knowingly make arrangements to place trafficked victims with their exploiters.”

Receiving payment in connection with exploitation of a trafficked victim

Finally, a person not directly involved in the trafficking process, but has benefited financially from it with the knowledge that the person has been trafficked, may be liable for an offence under section 6 of the PHTA. Examples of people who can be held liable for this offence include pimps and labour agents.

Protection and Assistance for Trafficked Victims

The PHTA also accords special assistance to victims of trafficking.

According to section 19(1) of the PHTA, the Director of Social Welfare of the Ministry of Social and Family Development may provide victims of human trafficking with access to a temporary shelter and counselling services.

In addition, to protect victims of sexual exploitation, trial proceedings for human trafficking offences must be heard in private, away from the public and media. Publication of the victim’s name or facts that could reveal the victim’s identity would also be prohibited.

How to Report Cases of Human Trafficking in Singapore

The signs of human trafficking are usually subtle but if you are vigilant, you could potentially save a person’s life.

It could even be a start to identifying more victims and exposing trafficking syndicates. Someone who shows some or most of the following characteristics may be a victim of human trafficking:

  • Lives in a cramped space with multiple other people
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical injuries and abuse
  • Avoids eye contact during social interactions
  • Provides overly scripted or rehearsed responses in social settings
  • Lacks official identification documents
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behaviour when you bring up the subject of law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Does not know what city he or she is in

It is important to note that the list above is not exhaustive and showing any one of the characteristics or more may not be conclusive evidence of human trafficking. You may need additional assessment and research of the situation before determining whether the victim was indeed trafficked.

If you suspect a case of human trafficking and would like to report it, you may do so by either reporting the case to:

  • For labour trafficking cases: Ministry of Manpower via its website; or
  • Singapore Police Force via telephone at 6435-0000 or email, or calling 999 if immediate police assistance is needed

Your personal details, such as your name and address, would generally not be disclosed in any subsequent civil or criminal proceedings.

While Singapore is tackling the problem of human trafficking through criminal enforcement, it is important for you, as an individual, to stay vigilant and spread awareness of the occurrence of human trafficking. This might assist in identifying victims around us and helping them obtain legal recourse.

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