People Trafficking and Australia: why sex-trafficking victims are human too

By Ellyse Borghi | 14 Sep 12

By Ellyse Borghi on behalf of the Monash Law Student Society Just Leadership Sex Trafficking Project. This piece is part of our September focus on Women’s Rights. See all of this month’s articles here.

People-trafficking and people-smuggling are often assumed to be inter-related crimes. Although there are some similarities, there are also some stark differences. What differentiates people-trafficking is the coercion, deception and force that goes into the movement of people across borders. While the Australian media focuses mainly on people smuggling, there is also a less publicised but significant problem with trafficking into our country. Project Respect, which provides support for victims of trafficking, estimates that at any given time there are around 1000 trafficking victims in Australia with approximately 300 brought into the country every year. It has been suggested that the mining boom has increased demand for sex workers in Australia and this may increase the incentives for traffickers.

To a certain extent this visa framework helps traffickers. The risk of deportation on being discovered by authorities is very real for victims and this may discourage them from contacting police or other services for help

Australia receives female and sometimes male, victims of trafficking from Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia and China as well as other countries. Most come to work in our sex industry but some, often men, are exploited for their labour in the hospitality industry. Although Australia’s borders are more secure than many European countries, this does not stop people trafficking; it simply changes the nature of it. Many of the victims are brought here with valid visas – student visas are most common, although the passports may be false. Indeed, part of the delicate nature of trafficking victims is that they often consent to coming to Australia and even consent to coming to work in the sex industry. They however do not, nor would anybody, consent to the physical, sexual, mental and financial abuse in slave-like conditions, or in some cases actual slavery. Around 90 per cent of trafficked persons in Australia are female and the vast majority worked in the sex industry. This is in line with global statistics indicating 79 per cent of internationally trafficked people are trafficked for sexual exploitation and sadly 20 per cent are children.

Once the women are in Australia they often have their passports confiscated and are forced to work in abhorrent conditions to pay off artificial debts incurred by the cost of flights and visas. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology these debts have ranged from $18,000 to over $50,000. The women then must work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, servicing hundreds of men even while they are ill or menstruating. While they might not be physically locked in the brothels, the nature of their contracts, the threats made to them and their families and the psychological state of victims often inhibits their escape. Further still, victims often know nobody else in the country, do not speak English and are told, sometimes not incorrectly, that if they leave they will be sent back to their communities poor and shamed.

The support network for victims of trafficking in Australia is sub-standard.  Suspected victims receive a 45 day Bridging F Visa (BVF) with the potential for an additional 45 day extension on a case by case basis. After this visa concludes the victims have a choice. If they wish to remain in Australia and receive a Criminal Justice Stay Visa they must cooperate in the prosecution of their traffickers. To do this they may be risking their own safety or more likely risking the safety of their family and loved ones back home. Further still, it is possible that they may not be useful in the prosecution – perhaps their evidence is not needed or they aren’t considered reliable witnesses. If they are not useful to the prosecution, even if they are willing to help, they are not eligible for this visa and will be deported at the end of their 45 days. To a certain extent this visa framework helps traffickers. The risk of deportation on being discovered by authorities is very real for victims and this may discourage them from contacting police or other services for help.

The crux of the problem and the solution to people-trafficking in Australia is Human Rights. The current problem is that the focus is too much on criminal prosecutions. At present the legislation used to combat trafficking is in the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which inherently implies that this is a crime fighting program. Too much attention is placed on the traffickers and not enough on the trafficked. This is further demonstrated by the visa framework. Victims are given protection based on their usefulness to criminal prosecutions, not based on their need for protection and not based on Australia’s humanitarian obligations to these victims.

All people have human rights; including sex workers and sex-trafficking victims. Australia is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Further still Australia has signed and ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. However, even without these conventions Australia would still have obligations to protect these women since sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are violations of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These human rights frameworks create an obligation for Australia to not only investigate, prosecute and punish the criminals who engage in people trafficking and slavery but also to protect, shelter and care for the victims of these gross violations of the rights to liberty and safety.