Large sex trafficking operations in Taiwan are not being investigated or prosecuted because police don’t want to jeopardize their performance reports, a local non-government organization says.

According to government statistics, the number of cases of human trafficking involving sexual exploitation handled by authorities in Taiwan has more than doubled in the past five years to 97 in 2015.

While the figures may suggest that efforts by the authorities to stamp out the industry are working, researchers at the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF) believe the statistics mask the real extent of the problem.

Bigger operations involving criminal organizations and trafficking networks continue to go unchecked as police chase a higher number of lower-level cases often involving one or two perpetrators, according to Jasmine Bai (白智芳), director of research and development at the foundation.

“Taiwanese police don’t want to spend too much energy or spend too much time to investigate the big or serious cases,” Bai says.

Bai says that because the prosecution success rate is a key performances indicator (KPI) for police, investigators are not incentivized to chase sex trafficking syndicate cases in which the conviction rate “is very low.”

“The police don’t think it is worth it to find more victims,” she says. “It doesn’t count in their KPIs.”

Rather than investigate cases involving larger groups of criminals, police focus on individuals in “more simple” cases — and they will often charge victims under simpler immigration laws, rather than trafficking, she says.

Systemic problems

TWRF provides a range of support services for victims in addition to its research and advocacy work. In an interview with The News Lens International at TWRF’s office in Taipei’s Datong District, Bai described the experience of many of the foreign women who come to Taiwan and work in the sex industry.

The average age of the women is 32. Most come from poor, rural areas “all over” China — a smaller proportion come from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. They are often the eldest daughter in the family or the main source of income, and are paying for family medical bills and siblings’ education.

The trafficking system has changed from a few years ago, when traffickers often used fraudulent marriages to bring women into the country. To avoid breaking immigration laws, traffickers now bring women in and out of the country multiple times on short-term tourist visas.

Traffickers “will lie to the girl or woman” and say “the work is not illegal,” Bai says.

The women are typically about NT$200,000 (US$6,200) in debt to a trafficker, a sum they can repay in about one month if they service eight to 10 clients “every day,” she says. They then continue to pay the trafficker rent and transport fees. While in Taiwan, the women work at brothels, karaoke bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, apartments and hotels, or they may be driven to and from clients. Traffickers and women also use social media tools like Line to connect with clients.

In the past, Bai says, there have been several cases where women were tightly controlled by traffickers for months on end — local traffickers were known to withhold food and access to the outside world to keep the women working until their debts had been paid. Such cases are thought to be less common now, particularly because women are in Taiwan for shorter periods of time. However, in addition to ongoing physical trauma and health risks, women still face major psychological pressures including helplessness, isolation, fear, dependency and anxiety.

Funding concerns

Bai acknowledges that improvements have been made in recent years regarding policing and monitoring of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, particularly since the 2009 introduction of the Human Trafficking Prevention and Control Act (HTPCA) and better resources allocated to the National Immigration Agency (NIA). But TWRF is now concerned about how the government will react to a forthcoming report from the U.S. State Department, which annually rates Taiwan’s performance on human trafficking issues.

For the past six years Taiwan has been rated as a Tier 1 country, which reflects the efforts of previous government administrations to address trafficking issues. The TWRF and other NGOs believe the high ranking is not only inaccurate, but also takes international pressure off the Taiwanese government to address trafficking related problems.

The TWRF believes the government, thinking the problem is now under control and with less reputation on the line internationally, continues to shave the budget of the NIA and other related agencies and has avoided further major reforms.

Shrinking budgets particularly are “a big problem,” Bai says.

The U.S. State Department notes, “While Tier 1 is the highest ranking, it does not mean that a country has no human trafficking problem. On the contrary, a Tier 1 ranking indicates that a government has acknowledged the existence of human trafficking, made efforts to address the problem, and complies with the TVPA’s minimum standards. Each year, governments need to demonstrate appreciable progress in combating trafficking to maintain a Tier 1 ranking.”

Still, Bai says that if Taiwan fell in the U.S. ranking, the reputational damage would be sufficient for the government to give relevant agencies greater resources and the right incentives to confront the larger trafficking syndicates.