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Human-trafficking law will make police work ‘more clear-cut’

SINGAPORE — Without a dedicated law to deal with human trafficking, police officers have faced limitations in dealing with offenders as they have to rely on other pieces of legislation, such as the Women’s Charter or the Children and Young Persons Act.

SINGAPORE — Without a dedicated law to deal with human trafficking, police officers have faced limitations in dealing with offenders as they have to rely on other pieces of legislation, such as the Women’s Charter or the Children and Young Persons Act.

This makes it much more complex for the police to hand out appropriate charges, said Superintendent Lawrence Eng, 45, who recently took over as head of the Specialised Crimes Branch of the Singapore Police Force’s Criminal Investigation Department.

For example, a male victim who has been sex trafficked is not covered by the Women’s Charter, so the police have to source for other offences under the Penal Code, such as those that involve the threat or harm of persons.

Now that there is a new law to combat human trafficking, the police’s work will become less complicated and more clear-cut, Supt Eng added.

Parliament today (Nov 3) passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, which prescribes stiff penalties for offenders in the form of mandatory jail terms and fines, among other things.

In light of the new law, the police have given all its frontline officers a name card-size document which lays out indicators that suggest a person is a victim, such as whether one’s passport document has been withheld.

About 3,600 to 3,800 officers are also in the process of undergoing a course conducted by a non-governmental organisation, Hagar International, which teaches them how to detect tell-tale signs that someone is a victim, and how to handle the person.

Despite the benefits of a dedicated law, there is a possibility that it could be exploited, said Supt Eng.

Even now, the police have seen some cases where people, who have been actively involved in prostitution and overstayed in Singapore, claim to be sex-trafficked victims to avoid prosecution.

It is not an easy process to suss out genuine cases, and a lot of time and effort is spent during the interview process to ascertain that, said Mr P Kandhavel, Director of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) Joint Ops Directorate and Employment Inspectorate. His department coordinates all cases with trafficking-in-persons (TIP) elements within the ministry.

However, when acting on sex-trafficking information, the officers’ priority is to find and rescue the victims, and as far as possible, give them the benefit of the doubt, added Mr Kandhavel, who is part of the Singapore inter-agency taskforce on TIP since it started in 2010.

With the growing attention on TIP, his team has “started seeing things wearing a TIP lens”, he said.

Mr Kandhavel cited a 2012 case involving two Thai workers who had been working illegally while on social visit passes. Following interviews, MOM officers found that the workers wanted to work legally but their employer had not applied for the appropriate passes. “In the past we would have seen it as -- you’re an offender who worked under social visit pass. But now, we see if they were culpable or not ... In this case, we found that they were actually victims.”

The two workers were not charged and were offered new employment, while the employer was prosecuted, he added.

Mr Kandhavel forsees a rise in reported cases relating to human trafficking, due to greater societal awareness and an increase in efforts to educate people of their rights. However, he does not think that it will result in a rise of substantiated cases.

Supt Eng expects the “real cases” to drop over time, following the passage of the new law. “If it drops, it just shows the success of (the new law), and the enforcement efforts from us,” he added.

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