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Anti-human-trafficking laws passed in Parliament

SINGAPORE — Advocates for trafficking victims have criticised the proposed laws to tackle human trafficking for not adequately protecting and supporting victims — thus deterring them from filing reports. But Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza, who spearheaded the drafting of the laws, stressed prevention — through tough penalties and enforcement — was the best way to address the problem upstream.

Reuters file photo

Reuters file photo

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SINGAPORE — Advocates for trafficking victims have criticised the proposed laws to tackle human trafficking for not adequately protecting and supporting victims — thus deterring them from filing reports. But Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza, who spearheaded the drafting of the laws, stressed prevention — through tough penalties and enforcement — was the best way to address the problem upstream.

Moreover, the authorities must guard against those who sought to exploit the law to, for instance, escape prosecution, said Mr De Souza.

The laws, first tabled by Mr De Souza last month, were passed yesterday, but not before several MPs, echoing criticism previously raised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), pointed out that more could be done to provide for victims to ensure they would be given enough assistance, rights to work and protection.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) also questioned whether there were enough resources in place — such as employment and educational opportunities — for victims, while Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam asked whether the laws would provide civil recourse for victims.

However, Mr Zainal Sapari and Dr Janil Puthucheary — both Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MPs — cautioned against having a system that may be subject to abuse, with Mr Zainal pointing out that enshrining the right to work in the legislation may open “a Pandora’s Box” of false claims made by those hoping to find alternative employment.

Dr Puthucheary said: “The best victim protection we can have over time is prevention, to make us as unattractive a destination for human trafficking as possible.” Responding, Mr De Souza said his experience speaking to trafficked victims is that some would rather not work, and preferred to return home. “Administrative flexibility to our enforcement officers on the ground may be the better remedy and the better measure,” he said.

He reiterated that effective victim care may differ from individual to individual according to their needs, and the law must also prevent exploitation from non-genuine cases. “It’s not meaningful to exhaustively list out all the measures that can be provided in the Bill ... An effective victim-care model is also one that is robust against abuse,” he said.

Last year, there were a total of 23 substantiated sex trafficking cases out of 53 reported cases, and 49 reported labour trafficking cases. The laws — the second Private Members’ Bill to be passed in Parliament — were tabled by Mr De Souza after consultations with some 300 participants. They spell out provisions on how trafficking in persons is defined, penalties for those who break the law, powers for enforcement agencies, as well as support for victims.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said legislating all measures may make the process more rigid. Furthermore, “we need to ensure that the protection given to TIP victims is not disproportionate to the protection accorded to victims of other serious crimes in Singapore”, he said.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor also noted the challenges of prosecuting labour trafficking cases. “Not every instance of worker abuse is trafficking ... We cannot be loose in our classification of TIP as there are severe penalties involved,” she said, adding that enforcement officers have other tools at their disposal to deal with labour offences.

Mr De Souza also addressed the concern that victims could be treated like criminals and face possible prosecution: “I understand our authorities usually do not prosecute a victim for offences which they are compelled to commit as a direct consequence of being a TIP victim ... because they have not acquiesced and consented to it,” he said.

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