In this graphic below, which colour represents human trafficking?
Prof Aurora Javate de Dios of the Women and Gender Institute (WAGI) in the Philippines would probably point to the mahogany patch marked ‘female prostitution’ (See How to fight human trafficking: Ban the term sex work). As I made clear in that article, I disagreed. Even so, I expect that some readers will still agree with her, saying that mahogany would represent the closest approximation to where human trafficking occurs.
But I think there will also be some readers who, perhaps with a bit of effort, can spot the colour that represents human trafficking.
It is black.
In order to see the black stain, we need to be able to look past the forms of sexual relationships. In the next diagram, I have lightened up the various “sexual relationship” colours:
We need to do the same thing when we’re looking for human trafficking: to look past the superficial forms of relationships and to probe into questions of disempowerment, abuse and exploitation.
This article is a follow-up to Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad, which received an unexpected number of comments that only showed me a need to clarify the issue better. That article spoke about quickie matchmaking, and the role of the press and the government. I said that this kind of matchmaking offering “off-the-shelf” brides is a form of human trafficking.
No agreed definition for human trafficking
Coming back to the diagrams, you will also have noticed that I have drawn the black stain with blurry edges. This is to represent that fact that there is no universal agreement as to how much disempowerment, abuse and exploitation is needed to warrant the description ‘human trafficking’. Some people use a broader definition, others a much narrower one.
At its blackest core, we have victims who are tricked, deceived, even kidnapped, and then have their liberty circumscribed and exploited. I think we can all agree that in such situations the full force of the law should be brought to bear.
At its edges, we have people who voluntarily put themselves into “at risk” situations, typically hoping to profit by it. Some deserve our sympathy more than others, in that they may have been misled to some degree by middlemen talking up their chances of success or riches, and playing down risks. It’s not difficult to come to a consensus that people should be allowed to take those risks if they so choose, and if they are well-informed. Where opinions differ is what the state’s and community’s responsibility is towards the middlemen, the buyers (who typically are armed with more information and social power, hoping to get the better of the deal) and the industry as a whole. Some may adopt a Caveat Emptor approach: Too bad, you chose to put yourself at risk by marrying a man after one look and if your mother-in-law makes you work like a kitchen maid for the rest of your life, tough luck.
In Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad, I pointed out that it’s not as simple as that. The existing laws here reinforce the hold that the husband has on his foreign wife. Society also has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable (including foreign girls from poor families, equipped with little information) from others with more leverage. That’s why we have consumer protection laws to soften the cold-heartedness of caveat emptor in transactions. That’s why we have drug safety laws to protect people from being sold quack medicine with wild claims (and sometimes lethal side effects).
As Ponder Stibbons said in one of his comments:
It’s not clear that the foreign wives understand the risks. The problem with marriage agencies being involved is that they have strong incentives to play down the risks so that they can complete more deals and make more money.
And I also pointed out the moral responsibility of media when they go out to promote more of such quickie matchmaking. Read carefully: I am referring to quickie matchmaking, not to matchmaking in general.
In other words, at its edges, we can sincerely differ in our views as to what needs to be done. Some might say: Nothing needs to be done. Others might argue for a total clampdown. I am rather middle-of-the-road here. I think something needs to be done, but I would argue it should be more along the lines of empowering the woman, requiring a longer “dating” period and educating her about risks of life-long selling out, than any campaign to stamp out the practice.
For sure, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with matchmaking, and I never made any such point in the previous article. What is wrong is the power differential in any match so made. I hope this answers the comment by RW in the previous article:
i’m not sure i follow the logic of marriage agency is inherently a bad thing. Yes, marriage agency makes money by matching a guy and a girl together. Does that automatically make it a bad thing?
RW went on to say:
Yes, there are many instances of human trafficking. But it is the act of forcing/coercing women and not the general idea of matchmaking that is the problem.
In my view, his definition is too narrow. We should also be alert to acts that put people into risky positions, even though no overt coercion is evident. For example, we think that it is unethical for car manufacturers to sell cars with faulty brakes; or recommend surgery to an elderly person with other underlying health problems. This should answer the question by KT:
I would also like to ask you: Do you think matchmakers are guilty of human trafficking even when they have not coerced or deceived anyone?
She also asked:
Why can’t/shouldn’t the divorced wives take their children with them to their home country?
This would be with reference to my point that Singapore-born children from quickie matchmakes are citizens here and if the mother through divorce loses her Permanent Residency, she faces separation from her own children. This heartbreaking prospect works to keep foreign wives under their husbands’ control. My reply to KT would be this: It’s a difficult solution. The children may have no citizenship rights in the other country. The father may contest the move, and the children themselves may suffer from being relocated into an environment they have not known before.
‘Trafficking’ and ‘people-smuggling’ — is there a difference?
The term ‘human trafficking’ is not only blurry at its edges, there is a growing realisation that we really should have two distinct terms for two conceptually different phenomena.
Firstly, there is a business worldwide that smuggles people through international borders. A conveyancing service is provided; it’s the main function of these “businessmen”, who may not have much interest in retaining the people so conveyed for further exploitation.
Human trafficking in my view doesn’t necessarily cross borders. A heartless parent selling his young daughter into prostitution in the nearest big city is also a human trafficker. However, with adults, crossing borders into alien cultures where foreigners have fewer legal rights certainly aids in disempowering the victim. But I think the key test is not the moving of people, but the abuse and exploiting of them.
Undeniably, there is a lot of overlap, as Lee Chee Wai wrote, though he uses the term “trafficking” to also mean people-smuggling:
For me, the complication arises from the apparent fact that trafficking per-se isn’t entirely the biggest problem. The biggest problems arising from trafficking seem to be the cases of exploitation that occurs during or after people are trafficked into (or out of) a country. This exploitation tends to occur because of the vulnerability of these individuals, mostly because of their legal status (in the cases of illegal immigration) or lack of uniform legal protection for the rights of individuals (as is the case of residency/citizenship rights for the “mail-order brides” highlighted in this article).
It hit me after seeing a few comments that some readers did not have the benefit of knowing what these quickie matchmaking agencies do exactly, nor the tenor of the marriage transactions. It’s my fault; I assumed that people knew.
Unsurprisingly then, some readers had the impression I was referring to matchmade marriages in general, or to foreign spouses in general, leaving me momentarily perplexed. Then I realised my mistake. Thanks to Rojakgirl, we have this video featuring Jansen Ong who was also mentioned and quoted in the Sunday Times feature of 25 July 2010.
The tenor is shockingly degrading to the women. Ong boasts about his girls being “pretty, sweet and they have nice figures”. At another point in the video, he says — almost surely as a selling point — that when husbands no longer love the Vietnamese women, they can always send them back to Vietnam. Sounds awfully like what we do when we have a malfunctioning toaster. And of course we have that demeaning bit about getting their virginity certified.
The main point of my article was about how wrong it was for a newspaper to celebrate this kind of matchmaking, not once, but repeatedly over the years. About how wrong it is for a state to turn a blind eye to the potential for abuse. No doubt, for some couples, the marriage will work out very well. But this does not absolve us of our responsibility to reduce the risks of future abuse inherent in such transactions. As beast wrote in his comment:
The obvious crux of the problem is that these agencies are not bothered about the plight of the women they are trafficking (even if they are acting like it); they are just selling these women for a quick buck.
Not criticising foreign wives
as much as i dislike the idea of getting a foreign wife, my thinking is that since these women have the same intention to get married ( and maybe have children). why not?
Indeed, why not? What I was concerned about in my article however, was the process of meeting the prospective spouse and how the process shortchanges the vulnerable women. Go ahead, marry a foreign wife, but treat her well.
What about prostitution?
Let me deal with one more significant comment. This one is by Cymric, and relates to the tension between the articles How to fight human trafficking: Ban the term sex work and Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad.
The difference between a sex worker and a foreign bride is that a sex worker sells her body temporary, while a foreign bride promise to sells her body permanently. If both are done willingly, what makes the first not human trafficking and the second human trafficking?
Hold on. . . Look where I have placed the main part of the black smudge in the diagrams above. If we use a relatively broad definition of human trafficking, then I would say many forms of female prostitution constitute human trafficking. Some arrangements (e.g. debt bondage) are plain unacceptable and should be dealt with sternly. Others fall within the blurry edges and therefore in my view, its worst features should be ameliorated, yet leaving people with some freedom to sell their bodies for an hour, even using a pimp (or “talent agent”) to do so if they wish.
Where I disagreed with de Dios was the conflation of all prostitution with human trafficking. I told her that this would open her to criticism about misfocussed objectives and misaligned plans of action.
It’s exactly like what happened in the comments section of Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad. Some readers, thinking that I was referring to foreign wives in general or matchmaking agencies in general argued that this would be misfocussed and misaligned.
I also pointed out to de Dios that one fallout from a lazy conflation was that her notion of “human trafficking” would be under-inclusive. Her focus on prostitution and pornography led me to suspect her real agenda was to combat the commercialisation of sex, the flip side to which would be the celebration of marriage. Well, in that case, it might blind her to the human rights abuses that follow from quickie match-making.
* * * * *
On the whole, this has been a very useful discussion — I thank you all — and I hope we come away with a clearer picture of the issues. We need to be more discriminating when we speak of marriage, prostitution, human trafficking and people smuggling. Or of traditional match-making versus “off-the-shelf” bride buying (under the guise of matchmaking).
More importantly, we really need to stop shrugging our shoulders and start taking an interest in addressing abuse when we see them.