The inhuman face of modern slavery in Australia

Top image for Rebecka Davidsson's feature on trafficking.
Top image for Rebecka Davidsson's feature on trafficking.

We’d like to think slavery doesn’t happen today – and certainly not
in Australia. But the shocking truth is that women are trafficked
into this country every year, writes Rebecka Davidsson.

Thousands of women, mostly of South-East Asian origin, are brought into Australia every year to be exploited – and often abused – despite efforts by the federal and state police forces.

Officially, only 119 cases were uncovered in 2014/15, but police and organisations helping the victims agree that is the tip of an iceberg. It is such a shadowy business, run by dishonest people here and abroad, that its true extent may never be known.

“Lately there have been women from South Korea, and also women from Malaysia and Thailand,” Hatch was told by Lena Sivasailam-Pichler of Project Respect, an organisation dedicated to helping victims of the sex-trade.

Trafficking, defined as the trade of humans for forced labour, sex slavery or commercial “sexploitation” is an international problem. It exists because there is a continuing demand for it from (mainly) men who will pay for sex and because unscrupulous people seek to profit by satisfying that demand. Countries and cultures that tolerate the commercialisation of sex and pornography create a climate in which the trade can thrive.

Though prostitution is legal (but regulated) in Australia, it is illegal to force people into sexual servitude – for instance telling a woman to perform sex work to pay off a debt. It was not until 2005 that human trafficking was formally criminalised.

The women typically come from poor backgrounds in developing countries on the promise of a better life and an escape from poverty. The traffickers usually have ties to the country of origin where they source the women, often operating as a team with Australian residents.The traffickers pay for the victims’ travel to Australia where, they are told, they’ll work in a karaoke bar or as a housekeeper to pay off their debt to the “benefactor”. On arrival, however, their passports may be seized as security, and they are taken directly to a brothel where they have to service clients to pay off their debt and accommodation. They are given little or none of the money and their debt never ends. Some are sex workers enticed by the promise of higher earnings abroad. Even though they enter the trade willingly, the law classifies them as trafficked women if they were exploited on arrival in unregulated brothels.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) received 119 referrals about human trafficking in the year July 2014 to June 2015. In that time one in four AFP investigations into sexual exploitation was centered on brothels in Sydney alone.

Commander Glen McEwen of the AFP told Fairfax media in 2015 that those cases represent just a fraction of the abuse that is happening, saying the human trafficking problem was “wide and vast”.  The problem is that because so few women are willing to dob in their abusers it is extremely difficult to prosecute: there have been no successful prosecutions of traffickers or gangs for sexual exploitation since 2014.

The AFP conducted 588 trafficking investigations and assessments between 2003 and 2015, but the traffickers are often one step ahead, constantly seeking new ways to evade detection.

Lena explained to Hatch that the traffickers organise everything: visas that will allow them to work in Australia, tickets, accommodation and someone to meet the women at the airport, beginning a chain of dependence. Because most of the women have minimal English and are ignorant of Australian laws or culture they are very vulnerable when they arrive.

Ning from Thailand was trafficked to Australia when she was just 13 years old. The ABC reported that when she arrived here she was told she had to pay back her debt by having sex with 100 men. She was rescued in a raid by the AFP and immigration authorities and successfully applied for victim’s compensation for harm suffered through human trafficking.

A more typical case involved a woman recruited in a small village to work in Sydney in a karaoke bar. It was to be the “change of a lifetime”. On arrival she was taken straight to an illegal brothel in the middle of the city to work off her travel costs. The woman, referred to as “Thuy” to protect her identity, had never been a sex worker but had to work long hours as a prostitute even during her period. She was beaten and raped and forced to have sex without a condom – putting her at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. She was not allowed to communicate with clients or other women she worked with. All earnings went straight to the traffickers.

She managed to escape from the apartment, but with no contacts and very little English she ended up working in another brothel before making contact with Project Respect.

inset image for Rebecka Davidsson's feature on trafficking.

Dependency becomes the key, Lena says, replacing – and more effective – than simply forcing women to pay off a debt. The traffickers make sure the women are surrounded by people who speak the same language (so they have no need to improve their English skills). Everything is arranged, from phone cards to food, so the traffickers gain full control of their lives. And then they start to work. And work.

In Lena’s experience, women who have worked under such severe conditions often develop health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, serious mental illness, insomnia and depression which may continue for the rest of their lives. Women who have been rescued often need intense medical treatment.

What is being done to stop the abuse?

“People are surprised when I talk about human trafficking in Australia,” Lena said. “Not many people know that it is happening”.

Project Respect’s main focus is locating trafficked women and help them escape exploitation. situation. Lena and her fellow workers visit brothels and talk with the women who work there. They look for suspicious behaviour – such as women sleeping in the brothel. Trafficked women can sometimes be identified by the questions they ask – questions women settled in Australia would not need to ask – like where to buy phone cards and get health checks.

Project Respect helped 16 women in 2016. As far as Lena knows, about 80 women reported last year that they had been trafficked. But she agrees many more victims are scared to approach authorities.

But why are people so scared to come forward?

It is not simply fear of the traffickers seeking revenge (against them or their families in their home country) or being reluctant to confront their abusers in court. There is also the fear of deportation, even where the victim has cooperated with authorities, because the legislation surrounding prostitution, visas, trafficking and the help given to people caught up in the trade is complex and discouraging.

The Australian Government offers a support program, run by the Red Cross, for women who have escaped or been rescued from exploitation. It provides limited help to women who agree to help police build a case against traffickers. It covers secure accommodation, money for living costs, access to health care, access to legal services and, in some cases, migration income support.

The program allows three categories of visa to be issued (page 132), depending on circumstances. When the trafficked woman reports the case to the police she enters the program for 45 days while the AFP investigates whether there is enough evidence to take a case to court. If the AFP agrees to proceed, the woman will continue to be supported until the case is finalized – if she agrees to give evidence. However, if the AFP decides that the case doesn’t have legs or if the woman refuses to give evidence she is given 20 days to exit the program. The victim can then apply for a visa to remain in Australia or be deported.

During 2014 and 2015, half of the 88 women who entered the program were dropped from it after 45 days. Only four of the women involved were granted referred stay visas which allowed them to remain in Australia and, later, apply for residency. The rest were all deported. By Western standards the period of support offered in Australia is not generous. In Canada, Italy and Norway support lasts a minimum of six months and the women can apply for an extension of their visas.

inset image for Rebecka Davidsson's feature on trafficking.

Despite its problems the Government program is one of the few sources of reliable statistics about trafficking, though only 273 women have entered it since 2005.  When Hatch spoke with Lena in April she knew of only one women currently supported by the program.

So how then can Australia increase the reporting of criminality and encourage more victims to come forward?

Australia’s national action plan to combat human trafficking, drawn up in 2014, commits Australia to the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 (the Criminal Code) on investigations and prosecutions and victim support  including

• increasing education about (and to beat) the problem for vulnerable groups, frontline responders and the general community

• strengthening cooperation between with States and Territories, and

• improving regional cooperation to combat trafficking and slavery.

The Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has been instructed to conduct an inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.  Submissions have been invited. The committee has yet to begin its deliberations. Its decisions are likely to be central to any new strategy to eliminate trafficking.

The three visa categories referred to earlier all involve cooperation with police and are dependent on full compliance by the trafficked parties during police investigations. One submission by a coalition of church and welfare organisations to a Federal parliamentary sub-committee on human rights has recommended that trafficked women (among other categories of enslaved workers) should not have to cooperate with police to get support.

In a separate initiative, a NSW parliamentary committee last year recommended a licensing system including a special regulatory unit to ensure no licensed brothel employed foreign workers, supposedly to help eliminate trafficking. However, the Baird Government blocked that, with Victor Dominello, former Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, saying such a move risked re-criminalising the sex industry.

“Introducing a licensing regime for brothels may drive more operators underground, which could adversely affect the health and protection of sex workers. The evidence from other jurisdictions is that licensing simply doesn’t work,” Mr Dominello said. – Report and photos by Rebecka Davidsson