Two years after the US State Department put Taiwan on its "Tier 2 Watch List" for human trafficking -- a dubious classification the nation shares with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya and China -- local law enforcement agencies and charities still disagree about basic concepts on how to address Taiwan's swelling population of foreign sex workers.
The US downgraded the nation from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in its annual "Trafficking in Human Persons" report in 2005 because of what it said was Taiwan's failure to keep itself from becoming a global hub and destination point for trafficked people, especially women and girls sold into sexual servitude.
Taiwan has since remained on the Tier 2 list.
But whether foreign sex workers, who are mostly from China and Southeast Asia, are trafficked "victims" or prostitutes who deliberately come to Taiwan under false pretenses was the subject of fierce debate at a conference on human trafficking in Taipei yesterday.
Hosted by Good Shepherd Social Welfare Services, a Taipei-based Catholic charity, the conference brought together law enforcement officials and social workers in a discussion on fundamental concepts pertaining to the problem.
The number of foreign prostitutes is soaring amid a sharp rise in the figure for "unaccounted for" foreigners, the majority of whom are women, panelists said.
In 2002, for example, the number of Southeast Asian immigrants who went missing after arriving in Taiwan totaled 8,135, government statistics show. Last year, the figure rose to 20,051, and includes 16,413 women.
Echoing American Institute in Taiwan officials who said at a conference on human trafficking in Taipei last month that the nation had been put on Tier 2 for "not actively addressing [its] trafficking problem," Lee Li-hua (
The agency is confused as to how to view trafficked people, she said, citing a recent case in which the agency processed 35 Indonesian sex workers in which she claimed it first said it had "saved" the women, but later used the word "apprehended" in a different context.
"So which is it?" she asked, urging the agency and charities to treat foreign sex workers as victims.
At last month's conference, which had been hosted by the agency and attended by US Deputy Assistant Attorney-General Grace Becker, among other senior US officials, Becker urged Taiwan to treat all foreign sex workers as trafficked victims and offer them protection and amnesty.
Lee said that doing so encouraged the "victims" to divulge information that could lead to the dismantlement of entire human trafficking syndicates.
But a senior Tainan City Police Department official in attendance baulked at Lee's comments, saying that most foreign sex workers come to Taiwan voluntarily.
"They come here deliberately to sell sex," he said on condition of anonymity. "They're criminals."
Tainan City police collared "30 to 40" such foreign women last year, he said.
"There's a big gap in our concept of who these women are, and who the charities think they are," the police official said.
Lorna Kung (龔尤倩), director of the International Migrant Network, Taiwan, agreed.
"When they face [a charity like mine], they say they were forced to come here because the punishment would be less severe," she said.