Scores of unsuspecting young women from the region are deceived or coerced into Singapore's thriving commercial sex industry.
But sex trafficking crimes are vastly under-reported as most of the victims—who believe they have broken Singapore law by having paid sex and working illegally—leave the country without pressing charges
As dusk fell on a Monday in late May, guards at the Philippine Embassy in Singapore found a young Filipina weeping at their gate. She was tall, slender and beautiful, and wearing a black floral party dress with matching strappy heels.
She begged for shelter and asked to go home.
Abigail, 22, a single mother, left her two-year-old daughter in Manila on May 21, thinking she had a job in Singapore as a singer in a restaurant. Every five songs she sang would fetch her S$100 (US$80), she was told.
Once here, she realised she would be paid for sex, not songs. And that she had to service a S$ 3,000 (US$2,425) 'debt' before she could earn a single cent. She ran away to the embassy after two days—and was on a plane back home hours after The Straits Times spoke to her.
She was one of the lucky ones. Every year, scores of unsuspecting young women from the region are deceived or coerced into Singapore's thriving commercial sex industry. Some are lured here with the promise of respectable jobs. Others come willingly to be sex workers, only to find that they were deceived about the pay and work conditions.
Because they believe they have broken Singapore law by having paid sex and working illegally, foreign women like Abigail usually return quietly, without pressing charges. So sex trafficking crimes are vastly under-reported, say activists working in the field.
And these women remain what researchers call a 'hidden population' whispered about, but never heard from.
Now, for the first time, a research study made available to The Straits Times has thrown more light on this issue. It looks closely at who these women and teenagers are, how they come, how high their debts are and what happens when they are here. Done from August 2009 to April last year, it includes indepth interviews with 111 foreign women and teenagers who said they were tricked into the trade in Singapore-51 Filipinas, 50 Indonesians, five Bangladeshis and five Chinese nationals.
About a third were under 21. Of this group, many were trafficked as minors. Children defined as those under 18 under a United Nations protocol against trafficking were a special focus of the research. It was conducted by ECPAT (an acronym for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), a Bangkok-headquartered international nongovernmental organisation with a presence in more than 75 countries. It was supported by the Singapore National Committee of UN Women (formerly known as Unifem) and the migrant workers' group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).
There were three significant findings, according to Ecpat spokesman Mark Capaldi. First, the women and children interviewed were lured using "various forms of deception", although they entered Singapore on a valid visa, usually a social visit pass, unlike in many countries where victims are smuggled in illegally.
Second, almost all the victims faced severe curbs on freedom. They were locked up in brothels or apartments when not working.
Third, they were kept in 'debt bondage', which means they had to pay off debts of up to S$3,000 (US$2,425) before they could earn a cent here.
Many had no idea they would be `indebted' to their agents if they took up the offer of working in Singapore, a common practice in the recruitment of migrant workers worldwide.
The report sheds significant light on the various modus operandi—the "different forms of deception" as Capaldi puts it by which women and girls are lured here.
Some, like Abigail, were told by their recruiting agents that they would have respectable jobs - as waitresses, sales assistants or singers only to discover on arrival that their job involved paid sex.
The evening after Abigail arrived, her Singaporean agent dropped her off at a 'high class' hotel, ostensibly to meet her 'boss'. She assumed the man was the manager of the restaurant she would be singing at but he turned out to be a client looking for sex. "It was only when he took me to his hotel room that I realised what was happening," Abigail recounted to The Straits Times in tears.
Others mainly Indonesians already trafficked within their country to Batam, knew they would work in the sex industry here. But they said they did not know how grim the work conditions here would be, or that they would be locked up in apartments or brothels, with their passports confiscated.
Yet others were enticed by friends and relatives who promised them a sight-seeing or shopping trip to Singapore.
‘Debt bondage' is another issue that surfaced time and again in the Ecpat interviews. Like maids, many of these women were made to pay back inflated recruitment costs, including the price of the ticket and accommodation costs, once they began working in Singapore.
But they were not told this before arriving, especially if they were being deceived about the nature of their job as well.
In one case, a 24-year-old Filipina, called Kn, was told on arrival that she had a debt of S$1,400 (US$1,130). She had been recruited back home by the friend of a friend who claimed she worked in Singapore as an entertainer in a pub and could get Kn a similar job.
She was told she would serve drinks and chat with customers. She had no idea there was sex involved.
"The first night in the pub, I said I want to go back, but my boss said I could not. I had to pay my debt first," said Kn in the report.
The debts are sometimes inflated further with 'fines', if the women fail to service a targeted number of customers. Sometimes, fines are imposed for trivial reasons: One woman told The Straits Times she was fined because she did not wear the mandatory 'T-backed' thong underwear the pimps had given to her.
Even those who came voluntarily to be sex workers were shocked to learn that the debt was far greater than agreed.
The Straits Times met one such woman in Batam. Like many Indonesians, Liza, a factory worker from Semarang in Central Java, said she was sold into the sex trade in Batam by a friend's friend. She was charged a debt of 10 million rupiah (US$1,160) by the brothel-keeper who initiated her into the industry in 2007.
Last year, the 'mamasan' or female pimp asked if she wanted to work in the sex trade in Singapore, where the money was better. She agreed. Once here, she was told her debt had ballooned by another S$2,000 (US$1,615).
But within a week, she was caught in a police raid at Orchard Towers and deported to Batam. After three months, the mamasan sent her back again, using a false passport, to work in Geylang. Once more she was caught in a raid within the week and deported.
"I knew what the job entailed, but the loan was just too high to repay. I had to keep going, as I could not leave," the woman in a tight white T-shirt told The Straits Times in Bahasa Indonesia.
The debts incurred by the women interviewed in the Ecpat report ranged from S$1,200 to S$3,800 (US$970-US$3,070) for Filipinas and between S$800 and S$2,500 (US$645-US$2,020) for Indonesians.
The report also elaborates on the first cog in the trafficking wheel: the recruiters in the women's home countries.
Most were trusted friends, even relatives. Some were friends of friends. Some were sold as children and trafficked in their own countries before arriving here.
Dede, 19, from a village near Surabaya, says she was sold at the age of nine by her step-mother to be the bride of a man 20 years older than her. He would repeatedly tie her to her bed, rape her and deny her food.
In 2005, when she was 13, she was befriended by a older woman in the neighbourhood who offered her food.
A few months later, the woman said she knew friends who could get her a job as a waitress in Batam. Dede believed the woman she called kakak—Bahasa Indonesia for older sister—and ran away with her.
Once in Batam, her kakak promptly sold her to a brothel where she had to have sex with 10 men a day. She says she "never touched money". The mamasan provided her with food and clothes.
Then, some time in 2008, she bumped into her kakak again. After Dede railed at her for ruining her life, the older woman expressed remorse and offered to take her in to live with her.
"She had a way with words, I could not refuse," Dede said in Bahasa Indonesia in an interview with The Straits Times in Batam.
A few months later, the woman asked if Dede would like to go on a shopping trip to Singapore and offered to get her passport made. "The offer was too good to resist," said Dede.
But once they were in Singapore, she found herself sold into the sex trade again. She says she serviced up to 30 men a night in Geylang and was locked up during the day.
She said she thought of running away, but her kakak kept her passport. "She warned me if the police caught me without a passport, I would be thrown in jail."
Dede said she never thought of approaching the police in Singapore. She spoke only Bahasa Indonesia, could not read or write and did not know who to trust. "I knew kakak well and she betrayed me twice," she said. "I don't know if I can trust any-one again."
She said she came to Singapore three times between July 2008 and August 2009, staying between 10 and 20 days each time on a social visit pass. She was still a minor at the time.
Each time she returned to Batam, she would stay in a flat rented by her kakak and was not allowed to go out alone. The woman kept her passport and her Batam identity card as well.
In Singapore, she never left the brothel and clients were sent up to her. She has no idea how much she was paid as the clients paid her pimp directly. "I never touched any money," she claimed.
She said she endured sexual violence including once when a Caucasian man forced her to watch pornography before he tied her to a bed and forced himself on her.
She then began looking out for a way to escape. As she was unfamiliar with Singapore, she realised her best hope was in Batam.
Her chance came in August 2009 when, on the way back from what proved to be the final trip to Singapore. Her kakak had fallen asleep on the ferry. As soon as it docked, she snatched her documents and some money, and bolted to freedom.
There are marked similarities in the circumstances of all the alleged victims interviewed in the Eepat report, as well as seven new victims The Straits Times spoke to recently.
Their accounts corroborate trends cited by the Philippine Embassy and NGOs such as Home, which has tracked the problem here since 2004 and has sheltered about 80 trafficking victims so far.
However, the fact remains that such allegations are hard to prove, not least because victims are often unwilling to press charges. The Philippine Embassy, which has helped more than 600 victims of sex trafficking since 2005, said that specific cases are reported to the Singapore police and the Ministry of Manpower only if the victim consents to filing a complaint. But such cases are rare.
"Almost all the victims prefer to be repatriated quickly due to the trauma they experienced, the long duration of investigation and prosecution, and the lack of income while the case is pending," the embassy's Minister and Consul General Neal Imperial said.
Even if they do report the crimes, they are notoriously hard to prove.
The traffickers or local agents—some of whom are Singaporean—usually use fake names when dealing with the women. Being new to Singapore and chaperoned at all times, many victims do not even know the exact addresses of the places they are held in.
Small wonder then that only two of the 32 alleged sex trafficking cases investigated by the police in 2009—the most recent year for which figures are available—were prosecuted. While the number of sex trafficking investigations fell from 54 in 2008 to 32 in 2009, the number of foreign women arrested for prostitution increased from 5,047 in 2008 to 7,614 the following year.
The large number of foreign women arrested for prostitution has led some advocacy groups in Singapore to believe that many genuine cases of trafficking go undetected.
Besides, the long-standing belief of some embassies, victims and even—until recently—the Singapore government that women who come here voluntarily to engage in sex work are not 'trafficked' may also have suppressed potential cases from coming to light, say groups like UN Women.
"According to the UN definition of trafficking, as long as there is coercion and threats involved, the case is classified as trafficking. The protocol on trafficking is not negotiable on this," said UN Women National Committee Singapore president Trina Liang-Lin.
While it is true that most foreign women who engage in sex work do indeed do so voluntarily, some genuine victims end up lumped under this group, say those working with victims.
Even some NGOs purportedly working with trafficking victims do not quite know the definition of trafficking, said Home president Bridget Tan.
"There is little awareness that you can come here voluntarily, but still be deceived about your pay and work conditions," said Tan. "This makes the problem even more difficult to fight."
Meanwhile, activists believe most trafficked women leave Singapore undetected, like Abigail and Dede.
About 41 of the 50 Indonesian respondents in the Ecpat survey, for instance, returned to Batam without the authorities ever knowing of their experience.
Dede, who said she became pregnant during her last stint in Singapore, is now a single mother of a chubby, dimpled one-year-old girl she brought along for the interview. She stayed in a shelter for trafficked women during her pregnancy, where she learnt to read and write.
She said she has now found love with an Indonesian construction worker and is taking a course to work in a hair salon.
Like many others, she did not bother to report her traffickers. "What's the point? That part of my life is over," she said.
As her gurgling daughter played on her lap, Dede said she just wants to get a proper job and focus on being a good mother. "I just want to ensure that she has a life that is more happy and successful than mine," she said, cradling her child. "That's all I really want."
ECPAT International is a global network of organisations and individuals working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
It seeks to encourage the world community to ensure that children everywhere enjoy their fundamental rights free and secure from all forms of commercial sexual exploitation.
The ECPAT network has expanded from four groups (all in Asia) prior to the World Congress in 1996 to more than 80 groups in over 70 countries by 2007. All of these groups are independent organisations or coalitions working against the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Report: Commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and young people in Singapore (pdf)