Over the past year, the Singapore authorities have intensified enforcement efforts to combat human trafficking, which local human rights advocates say remains a worrying problem, contributing to estimated annual profits in Asia of US$10 billion (S$12.9 billion).
In 2012, the police conducted 3,567 anti-commercial sex operations which led to the arrest of 203 commercial sex agents or "pimps", up from the 2,643 operations and 148 arrests made the year before.
Those arrested are investigated, and action is taken against them if necessary, said the Singapore Inter- agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in an exclusive e-mail interview with The Sunday Times.
Earlier last week, it issued a stinging rebuttal of this year's United States report on human trafficking, which charged, again, that Singapore has not done enough to address trafficking.
The report is produced annually by the US Department of State and is based on the extent of countries' efforts to comply with the "minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" found in US Laws on Trafficking in Persons (see http:// www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt).
For the third year, it placed Singapore in Tier 2 of a four-tier category system as a country not fully compliant with minimum international standards against human trafficking but making "significant efforts" in the area.
The report alleged, among other things, that child sex trafficking occurs in Singapore, and that the Singapore Government investigated more than 400 leads, "yet it only substantiated 21 trafficking cases during the year".
The TIP, which was set up in 2010 and is co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Manpower, said the US report was riddled with "inaccuracies and misrepresentations", and that Singapore has, in fact, been committed to fighting trafficking.
Apart from the anti-commercial sex operations, the police also handled 52 sex trafficking reports, and identified 72 cases with elements of labour trafficking last year, up from the 43 reports and 67 cases respectively in 2011.
Elements of labour trafficking include employment-related disputes such as insufficient payments of salary, failure to pay salary and, in some cases, employees having to work long hours with insufficient rest.
The growth in enforcement efforts is a result of TIP having "stepped up training for enforcement officers to equip them with skills and knowledge that will help them identify potential trafficking victims early", said a TIP spokesman.
"We are also raising public awareness on trafficking in persons among the general public via public education campaigns that may help increase the detection of cases through increased reporting in the long term."
Dr Alistair Cook, an adjunct research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, said the figures indicated TIP was implementing greater measures to address the issue of human trafficking.
"Singapore is primarily a destination for traffickers and victims largely in sex trafficking, but also in cases of labour trafficking, where it could be construed as labour exploitation, and then retrafficked into sexual exploitation," he added, noting he had not seen evidence of a significant change in the number of human trafficking cases, partly because it is such an informal economy.
He suggested Singapore create an "index of trafficking" with a clear list of indicators so people can better help identify and alert authorities to suspected trafficking.
Singapore is a natural destination for traffickers and recruiters to coerce the vulnerable who fall prey to human trafficking, as there is constant demand for foreign workers, said Ms Sylvia Lee, the founder of anti-trafficking volunteer organisation EmancipAsia.
Ms Lee praised the TIP's intensified crackdown on trafficking, but said more could be done, including tightening immigration control over single girls and women from certain countries coming to Singapore.