Bridge to Recovery

By working with various agencies within the region to empower victims of human trafficking, Hagar Singapore ensures that the exploited have a real chance of a fresh start.




ilis (not her real name) first came to Singapore from Indonesia at the age of 14. But it wasn’t for a holiday – she was trafficked into the country to work at a brothel. The teenager had been deceived by a fake employment agency, and was forced into providing sexual services.

Fortunately, she managed to escape and was taken to the police, who then referred her to Hagar Singapore. It’s the regional branch of an international humanitarian non-government organisation (NGO) that helps people who have escaped sexual slavery and human trafficking.

After undergoing counselling provided by the organisation, Lilis overcame her pain. She also gained self-confidence by picking up skills such as hairdressing. Eventually, she moved back to her home country, where she now works in a beauty salon.

Lilis’ case is among many that Hagar Singapore, set up in 2004, manages each year. Initially, the organisation focused on awareness, advocacy and supporting the needs of trafficking survivors in Cambodia, Vietnam and Afghanistan, where Hagar provides direct services to victims.

Since 2015, when it started working in partnership with the government to provide victim care, Hagar has assisted 38 women and girls trafficked to Singapore.

“As a global economic hub with a high flow of people, Singapore is, unfortunately, also a tempting place for criminal syndicates to use as a transit point or destination country for their trafficking activities,” says Michael Chiam, Hagar Singapore’s executive director.

To this end, the organisation works closely with the Singapore Government’s Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons to ensure trafficking survivors receive recovery care during their stay in Singapore, and are reintegrated back to their home countries. An important part of Hagar’s work in Singapore and the region is capacity building. In 2014, the organisation trained over 4,000 Singapore front line policemen to identify trafficking victims. That has resulted in swifter protection for victims.

“We are now exploring possibilities with the task force to extend the training to other enforcement groups here,” says Chiam. “Hagar is also collaborating with the Singapore Government on a project to support vulnerable witnesses locally.”

One of the biggest challenges Hagar faces is transnational crime. “Curbing the vicious cycle of exploitation starts upstream, which is usually a complex process,” he shares.

“ No single NGO can meet all the needs of victims. Cross-border collaborations are key to ensuring the work we do is far reaching and effective for them. ”

Michael Chiam executive director of Hagar Singapore

While each country needs to ensure that it has adequate enforcement as well as safety systems and structures to prosecute offenders and protect victims, Chiam stresses that it is important not to work in silos.

“Collaboration with agencies such as the International Organization for Migration and other counterparts in countries where victims come from has been extremely helpful, particularly in reintegrating victims with their communities. No single NGO can meet all the needs of victims. Cross-border collaborations are key to ensuring that the work we do is far reaching and effective for them.”

In Cambodia, for example, Hagar partnered with Johns Hopkins University and other NGOs to tailor the Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy programme to the Cambodian context, taking into account local culture and language.

Hagar Singapore empowers victims of traffi cking to regain their confi dence through art therapy.

The programme’s goal was to build resilience within clients. It included their families to help them understand the impact of trauma on their loved ones.

But collaboration isn’t always a walk in the park, especially among people of different backgrounds. That is why Hagar makes it a point to have face-to-face meetings with the various agencies it works with. These meetings allow for more effective communication, with the added advantage of body language.

“It is also important to be mindful of differences. Besides overcoming language barriers, approaches on how to help can also differ across cultures,” Chiam explains.

Another example of inter-agency collaboration involves the Women’s Alliance for Knowledge Exchange (WAKE), based in San Francisco. WAKE leverages technology to connect and empower women around the world. The partnership led to the development of HAGAR’s online safety campaign, which is being distributed to children in Cambodia to protect them from online exploitation.

Ultimately, Hagar’s work is also about empowering, and adding value to, the lives of the rescued victims. A lesson to keep in mind, Chiam says, is that it takes time to build trust between the NGO and the victim.

“We should never underestimate the pain of trauma that trafficking survivors struggle with. We’ve seen how the exploitation and abuse has destroyed all hope of freedom and self-worth once present in the victims,” he says.

As such, it is important for the recovery approach to be holistic. “Hagar focuses on building a strong foundation in the lives of the victims by improving their literacy and skills, thereby reducing the risk of re-exploitation,” he adds.

Enhancing confidence through knowledge is also key. Hagar’s legal teams assist clients with their cases in court, and run workshops to help them understand their legal rights.

“With time, Hagar has witnessed the recovery and transformation of many former victims globally. Many of them are now leaders in their own right, becoming medical doctors, teachers, counsellors, social workers and champions of change,” says Chiam.



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