By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Singapore is clamping down on landlords whose rental flats serve as "pop up" brothels but campaigners said on Thursday it would do little to help the women who are trafficked into sex work.
The government announced tougher sentences this week in a bid to stamp out a trend for temporary apartment brothels in the city state, most staffed by women lured from poorer parts of Asia with a false promise of legal work.
Their emergence fits a global pattern of vice gangs using city flats hidden far from sight, advertising sex services on hard-to-trace websites and apps, then turning huge profits by selling trafficked women and children for sex.
Under laws passed on Monday, home owners or landlords whose Singapore premises are used for prostitution now face stiffer penalties, including jail terms and fines.
"The law is good to deter people but there are bound to be people who would still want to commit the crime," said Michael Chiam, the executive director of anti-trafficking group Hagar International in Singapore.
"The girls are afraid to go to the police on their own because they know they owe the traffickers a lot of money and the traffickers know their family back home," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The "pop up" sex shops - on the rise in anonymous housing estates in ordinary neighbourhoods - are a far cry from the controlled "red light" district in suburban Singapore.
But they fit a wider trend for short-term brothels that let gangs evade police whilst retaining control of business.
Last year, Airbnb said it would invest in new technology to tackle sex trafficking at its short-term rental properties, with thousands of brothels uncovered from London to New York.
Prostitution is not illegal in Singapore but soliciting, pimping or owning a brothel are criminalised.
Women from poor parts of Asia are often lured to Singapore with promises of better pay and the city's wholesome image.
Many fall victims to trafficking, paying hefty fees to middlemen who fail to secure legal work documents then scare them into sex work to pay off debts accrued en route.
Instead of targetting the syndicates, the government should offer immunity to encourage the women to speak out, said Vanessa Ho from Singapore-based sex workers' advocacy group, Project X.
"At the end of the day it's the women who continuously get arrested and deported," said the group's executive director.
"Sex workers would not willingly go to the police to say these are the men that brought me to Singapore because when they do that, they are liable to be arrested and deported."
Singapore was ranked 'Tier 2' in the latest U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully meeting minimum standards when it comes to eliminating human trafficking.
The Singapore government said the tougher penalty was aimed at vice syndicates that use technology to evade enforcement.
The number of women arrested for prostitution through an online platform jumped to 55% last year from 16% in 2015, official data shows.
Most were arrested in residential estates.
Under the new law, owners of pop-up brothels face a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of S$150,000 ($110,000).
($1 = 1.3567 Singapore dollars) (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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