A couple of years ago, 3 South Asian women entered Singapore, with promises of a lucrative dancing career at a nightclub.
To be employed, they were required to sign a contract in English, surrender their passports, and stay in shared accomodation – all for a pay of S$900 (USD 660) per month, a veritable fortune in their eyes. As newbies to a foreign country, they thought this was normal. Their poverty-ridden background made them view the opportunity to earn Singapore dollars and send money back home, as a dream come true.
They had to provide sexual favours to nightclub patrons and work even when sick. They were barred from leaving their apartment. Unless their employers gave them access to a phone, they had no way to contact their families back home. Being unable to speak English proved a deterrent to contact the authorities. Plus, they were constantly threatened with social stigmatisation if they ever spoke out. Faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulties, they felt truly alone in a country where they knew no one, except their employers.
Just before Covid-19 made global headlines last year, authorities cracked down on the operations and rescued these women. And Singapore got its first ever conviction on labour trafficking charges. The ’employers’ were fined and jailed, and the women were returned to their home countries, and assisted with re-settlement.
This human trafficking story ended on a positive note. Not all do.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as:
“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
In simple words, human trafficking is “the process of trapping people through the use of violence, deception or coercion and exploiting them for financial or personal gain” (courtesy: antislavery.org).
So, to qualify as human ‘trafficking’, victims needn’t be transported overseas; they simply have to be forced into a situation of exploitation. Here are some mind-boggling statistics on this crime:
- There are between 20 and 40 million people in modern slavery today.
- About 71% of enslaved people are women and girls, while men and boys account for 29%.
- Human trafficking earns global profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers; $99 billion comes from commercial sexual exploitation.
- Advocates report a growing trend of traffickers using online social media platforms to recruit and advertise targets of human trafficking.
There are no countries or industries completely immune to the vice of human trafficking. Some high-risk industries are agriculture, fishing, textile manufacturing, hospitality and entertainment. Europe, North America, Middle East, and some countries in East Asia and the Pacific are popular destinations for trafficking victims.
Human trafficking takes many forms; people coerced into working as money/drug mules, sex trade, organ harvesting, cheap factory labour, domestic help, and children forced to serve as soldiers or commit crimes. Human trafficking is considered a hidden crime – nearly impossible to detect through traditional means. This is because victims almost never come forward – be it due to fear of retaliation from abusers, language barriers, or psychological/financial burdens borne by them.
The victims are all around us. They don’t carry placards or have their victimhood stamped on their faces. But look closer, and worrying signs may emerge; persons who appear timid, submissive and fearful in public, reluctant to speak, deferring to another in control, having few possessions or no personal identification. These are potential red flags that indicate trafficking.
Or not. There could always be perfectly valid reasons why someone behaves in a particular way in public. Unfortunately, this ambiguity in behavioural red flags and victims’ reluctance to point out their abusers, makes this crime extremely difficult to identify and convict legally.
Advances in technology has enabled more to join the fight against human trafficking. Financial institutions offer assistance through transaction monitoring and analysis that helps identify patterns in money movement, indicating the presence of human trafficking. Some fintechs have also developed machine learning models that can be trained to detect suspicious transaction patterns, and alert authorities. Yet another tool used to identify human trafficking red flags is social media analysis.
How can you help? First, be aware of the signs of human trafficking – that’s one of the best ways you can contribute. Volunteer your time at a shelter dedicated to victims of human trafficking. Be an informed consumer; find out where/how the products you consume are produced, and boycott companies connected to human trafficking. Together, we can help combat this evil and reduce the number of victims claimed every year.
The United Nations observes July 30th as "World Day Against Trafficking in Persons" and has included it as one of its Sustainable Development Goals.