Human trafficking: Australia's sinister practice

Natalie Simpson

The sinister practice of transporting women over international borders for the purpose of imprisoning them as sex slaves is something that most people choose to believe does not happen in their own backyard. Unfortunately the reality is that trafficking in persons is a very real problem in Australia.

Generally, trafficking crimes occur when young women from impoverished countries are sought out by traffickers who offer them jobs in a foreign country. Some of the women are aware they will be working in the sex industry (although under much more civilised conditions); others are promised jobs unrelated to the sex industry, often in hospitality or teaching.

The women are then brought to their intended destination city by the traffickers who take their passports, imprison them and often subject them to systematic beatings and rapes in order to ‘prepare’ them for the submissive nature of the work they will be required to perform. Many women are ordered to perform any sex act their customers request, irrespective of the health or safety implications. They are kept in brothels as sex slaves, and stripped of their dignity, autonomy and their basic human rights.

The women are also told they owe their traffickers large amounts of money in ‘debts’ incurred from bringing them to Australia. These debts are completely fabricated and usually run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Just recently, trafficked women were found enslaved in a brothel on Brunswick Street in among the fashionable restaurant district of North Fitzroy. These women had been trafficked from Thailand and held as sex slaves by Wei Tang, who forced them to work 10 to 12 hours a day in order to work off a ‘debt’ of $45,000. The women had to service 800 to 900 clients in appalling conditions.

There have been several recent changes to the Australian law dealing with human trafficking, all of which are good steps towards managing the sex slavery problem. Human trafficking is a manageable problem as long as there is a true commitment from the Australian community to work together, acknowledge the problem and deal with this sinister practice head-on.

The term human trafficking refers to the use of coercion, deception or exploitation to bring a person into a country for the purpose of sexual slavery. Although it is not widely publicised, human trafficking is a serious problem within the Australian prostitution community. Within the last year there have been three significant steps forward in the legal recognition of human trafficking and the protection of victims of human trafficking.

In August 2008 the High Court of Australia, in the case of R v Wei Tang, defined the crime of slavery in a way that addresses the reality of women trafficked into Australia. Project Respect’s media spokesperson, Katherine Maltzahn, outlined the High Court’s decision as having the following impact: ‘One, the Court has provided powerful clarity to investigators, prosecutors, and governments about what elements of slavery need to be proved in order to secure convictions. Two, the Court has embraced a modern understanding of how the crime of slavery operates. Three, the Court has found that consent to come to Australia for prostitution is not equal to consent to enslavement or the conditions of slavery.’

On 27 June 2009 two men were found guilty in the Supreme Court of Victoria of possessing a slave in relation to sexual slavery and human trafficking. This case marked the first formal legal action in Victoria dealing with sex slavery and human trafficking.

On 17 June 2009 the Federal Government announced significant changes to the visa structure used to support victims of human trafficking. These changes included:

  • Extending the initial stage of the Support for Victims of People Trafficking Program from 30 to 45 days, and making it available to identified victims irrespective of whether they are willing to assist police, which will provide all victims with an opportunity to recover and seek advice about their future options;
  • Providing up to 90 days’ assistance for victims who are willing but not able to assist police, due to factors such as trauma. Where the victims do not hold a valid visa they can be granted a second Bridging F visa;
  • Allowing access to the Support for Victims of People Trafficking Program to identified victims who hold any kind of valid visa so victims do not have to relinquish existing visas in order to receive support;
  • Providing up to 20 days’ transitional support so victims assisting law enforcement can consider their future options, seek legal advice, arrange travel and find support networks after involvement in the Support for Victims of People Trafficking Program;
  • Removing the temporary visa stage in the Witness Protection (Trafficking) visa process, and starting the process before the completion of a prosecution, which will reduce the pathway to a permanent visa for eligible victims by at least two years;
  • Reducing the threshold for a Witness Protection (Trafficking) Certificate from having made a ‘significant contribution’ to making ‘a contribution’; and
  • Enabling immediate family members who are outside Australia to be included in an application for a Witness Protection (Trafficking) visa.

These recent changes to the Australian law show a growing commitment within the government and legal community to manage human trafficking and sex slavery. These steps have been significant, but there is still much work in the field that needs to be done.

Natalie Simpson is a Liberty volunteer.