Discussion Evening – Human Trafficking in Melbourne: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution

By Jess O’Callaghan and Sara Gingold
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In her opening remarks, Dr Caroline Norma explained with fervour that the framing of human trafficking in Australian discussion is all wrong. I was convinced – having come into the Young UN Women’s “Human Trafficking in Melbourne: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution” event held earlier in the year on 22 March – that human trafficking was something that happened “elsewhere”. Almost everything discussed was a revelation.

The Young UN Women Australia Melbourne is a group of high school students, university students and young professionals committed to the promotion of gender equality and the advancement of women worldwide.

… we have unprecedented power to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people …

The evening began with an inspiring video that reminded us of both the facts of human trafficking and the terrible reality of a human cost. As beautifully drawn faces faded into darkness on the screen, the audience was left to reflect on how many individuals remain unseen and unheard, living a life of impoverished loss. However, while the hopelessness may appear overwhelming in magnitude, it is our awareness of the issue that ultimately shines the light. The video brought with it the realisation that we have unprecedented power to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people out there. It forced us to question what is “within our reach”.

Dr Caroline Norma spoke first, a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Australia (CATWA) and a lecturer at RMIT. The problem, she explained, is in the push to reframe human trafficking as “migration for sex work”. She spoke mainly from the perspective of “prevention” and, as the first speaker, also outlined some of the problems faced in the discourse surrounding human trafficking for sex work in Australia.

Dr Norma argued very convincingly that the problem was being looked at from the wrong angle, from an angle that was almost absurd in its missing of the point. For the Government to respond to the issue in terms of migration, they are ignoring the anomalies of human trafficking. “How are these women buying their plane tickets?” she asked, “How are they finding accommodation? How are women in Thai factories proficient enough in English to find out that they could be earning more money for sex work in Australia?”

… labelling the women and children who have been trafficked as having simply “migrated for sex work” is a misrepresentation of their situation.

Framing it this way “ignores the profit motives for pimps in Australia”, Dr Norma explained. She drew attention to the Four Corners / The Age investigation, which drew links between sex work brokers in Thailand and Melbourne. It is a perspective ignored by those creating legislation, she explained, as the disproportionate amount of migrant women in the sex industry in Australia is dealt with at a governmental level as though it is a product of migration management rather than of human trafficking. It is links like those made by the Four Corners / The Age investigation that prove labelling the women and children who have been trafficked as having simply “migrated for sex work” is a misrepresentation of their situation.

Petra Wahr came at the issue from a different angle. Instead of dealing with prevention, Wahr spoke of the work done by the Red Cross Support for Trafficked People Program. As a Project Officer for the program, she was able to explain what sort of support was provided to those identified by the Australian Federal Police as “trafficked” who would be willing to help in the prosecution process. Wahr also explained the Red Cross’s role in the “whole government approach” to human trafficking in Australia.

The support role the Red Cross plays is varied, and can be anything from emotional support and referrals; to other support agencies; to economic empowerment and providing education and training opportunities. Wahr spoke of the need to empower the people who have escaped from a situation where they have been trafficked, as some of them have not felt in control of their lives for up to ten years.

“Every trafficked person’s story and experience will be different.”

Those who have been trafficked, Wahr explained, also face a plethora of psychological repercussions. Dealing with issues such as isolation, loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder often enters into the role that the Red Cross support program plays. She impressed upon the audience that “every trafficked person’s story and experience will be different” and that there is a danger in treating the problem in a uniform way without considering the unique situation of every person placed in such a terrible situation.

The third speaker, Fiona McLeod SC, was able to highlight the legal issues faced when dealing with compensation and prosecution for the victims of sex trafficking in Australia. McLeod provided legal counsel in the first successful Australian compensation claims pursued by victims of sex trafficking in Australia. She told the story of how she first became aware that her actions could help bring about justice for those subjected to trafficking in this country.

“If this was happening to our daughters and I had no idea about it … that was horrific” …

After watching the film Trafficked about 13-year-old Ning, a Thai girl held in a Sydney brothel, McLeod was startled by the fact that she had never heard of such incidents before. “If this was happening to our daughters and I had no idea about it … that was horrific”, she explained. Having been confronted in a similar way by the evening’s discussion, I shared this familiar sentiment.

McLeod was able to approach the issue from a legal standpoint, but with an astounding amount of compassion. There was also hope in what she said, explaining the scope for legislative reform, and the need for victim support.

McLeod also brought the discussion back to the film screened at the beginning of the night, which asked of the audience “What’s within my reach? What can I do?” For McLeod, it was working through the legal system to attain compensation for those who had been trafficked for sex work. But the answer was different for everyone in the room. She brought the question down to the everyday, to asking yourself: “how can this be so cheap?” when eating in the city or paying for a manicure.

… everyone has some capacity to act.

The message of the night seemed to be that while what is “within reach” for everyone is different. There are many ways to effectively tackle the problem of human trafficking in Australia – and everyone has some capacity to act.

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