A 17-year-old West African girl discovered being held against her will as a sex slave in Sydney last year is just the tip of the iceberg in what is a bourgeoning sex-trafficking industry in Australia.
A report by the ABCclaimed that the girl may have been brought to Australia from Guinea on a fake passport after being promised work as a cleaner. The girl escaped from a house where she was being held captive, flagging down a passing motorist, who notified authorities.
This is far from an isolated incident, as many women and girls are being held against their will as sex-slaves, albeit largely out of sight of the general public.
When Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commander Glen McEwen appeared before a NSW “Inquiry into the regulation of brothels” in late 2015, he confirmed that there had been 24 separate investigations into sexual exploitation in the previous financial year. But he added: “Human trafficking is by its very nature a clandestine activity and we believe our data does not reflect the levels and impacts of sexual trafficking and sexual slavery in the Australian community.”
Commander McEwen outlined a typical scenario to the inquiry: “People usually arrive in Australia in a group. On arrival they are introduced to the main contact in Australia. Unfortunately, that is usually when the exploitation starts. Their passports are taken from them. They are told that they are here to provide sexual services and that they will not be paid because their travel has been paid for by the facilitators in Thailand and there is a debt to be repaid to the organisation.
“These people usually work very long hours. There are a large number of clients for them to service to eliminate the debt. They are rarely in a position to ever pay off the debt. They either live in the premises where they work or are conveyed to and from it. They are always under the control, physical or otherwise, of that particular organisation or group of people. Their ability to interact with the community is limited. They cannot choose their food. They do not mingle with the community or see anybody. They are working in a group of other exploited people.”
NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas submitted to the inquiry that “reporting of sexual servitude unfortunately … has increased, although there have been few confirmed cases. Of significance is consistent recent reporting which alleges large-scale networks using Asian students as sex slaves throughout New South Wales and other states … it is likely these figures are well below the actual rate of incidence due to regulation falling outside of NSW Police responsibility, thus not entirely visible to us.”
Victoria Police also told the committee that “human trafficking was under reported, that there are a lot of problems with sex trafficking in Victoria, and that it occurred in both licensed and illegal premises”.
The decriminalisation of prostitution in NSW in 1979, legalisation and regulation of sex work in Victoria in 1984, and legalisation in Queensland in 1992, have seen a proliferation of the prostitution “industry” and sex-trafficking. This is despite assurances from Marcia Neave, then Reader in Law at the University of Melbourne, who in 1985 chaired a board of inquiry into prostitution in Victoria and claimed that legalising and regulating the industry would lead to a decline in prostitution and protect women from exploitation.
Mary Sullivan and Sheila Jeffreys from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) wrote a paper in 2001 entitled “Legalising prostitution is not the answer: The example of Victoria, Australia”, in which they argued that the problems arising from legislating prostitution as commercial sex were child prostitution, sex trafficking, prostitutes being exploited by big business and a “massive expansion” in the “industry”. Following Victoria’s lead, NSW decriminalised brothels in 1995. Four years later the number of brothels in Sydney had tripled.
One of the select committee’s findings (point 4.34, p54) states: “[E]vidence by both the NSW and Victorian police was that outlaw motorcycle gangs and Asian organised crime syndicates are linked to brothels in both states. The Federal Police agreed that by its nature, sex trafficking relies upon an organised group for it to operate but the scale of operation can vary.”
The committee found that the decriminalisation of prostitution, rather than reducing crime, had allowed organised crime to infiltrate the industry: “[T]he structure and absence of a regulatory regime in the decriminalised model means that there is not an effective intelligence base, so organised crime can infiltrate the industry without the knowledge of law enforcement or local government.”
Evidence was presented to the committee that karaoke venues  were flying under the radar of council regulation and were found to be providing sexual services and had links to Asian organised crime networks. Similarly, the AFP had investigated massage parlours (p53) for suspected sexual servitude.
According to the U.S. Department of State “Trafficking Persons Report 2017” (USTPR): “Australia is primarily a destination country for women and girls subjected to sex trafficking … a small number of children, primarily teenage Australian and foreign girls, are subjected to sex trafficking within the country.
“Some foreign women – and sometimes girls – are held in captivity, subjected to physical and sexual violence and intimidation, manipulated through illegal drugs, obliged to pay off unexpected or inflated debts to traffickers, or otherwise deceived about working arrangements.”
The report noted that while efforts had been made to reduce the demand for forced labour, “the [Australian] Government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts”.
The fact that prostitution and sex-trafficking are inextricably linked, and that the former is necessary for the latter to proliferate, means that any attempt to curb sex-trafficking will have limited success unless serious efforts are made to reduce the prostitution “market”.
The USTPR had a mixed review of Australia’s efforts to curb trafficking: “Although the Government meets the minimum standards, screening procedures for indicators of labour trafficking among vulnerable groups remained insufficient.” “For the third consecutive year, the Government did not convict any sex or labour traffickers under the trafficking provisions in the criminal code”, although some were convicted of lesser charges.
An article in The Australian in 2014 revealed that of the 416 investigations since 2003 into human trafficking into Australia, of which half were related to sex-trafficking, there have only been 17 convictions.
According to World Vision, human trafficking is a $187 billion industry, second only in criminally derived income to the illegal drug trade, with a third of profits generated in wealthy countries like Australia. A study by the University of Sydney and University of Queensland in 2012 found that as many as 2000 women were trafficked into Australia each year and forced to work as sex slaves.
Perhaps the following sentence from Sullivan and Jeffreys sums up the reluctance of governments, state and federal, to reduce the sex industry where it has been legalised or regulated: “Once prostitution is legalised, ending it becomes much more difficult, as a lobby of ‘respectable’ businessmen would have to be put out of business, and the government would have to tax the rich instead of living off women’s bodies.”
The adverse effects of prostitution and on those forced into sexual slavery are extensive. A study entitled, “Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries” (Melissa Farley et al., 2008), reveals that 68 per cent of past or present prostitutes suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
So, what can be done to curtail the rising trade in human flesh?
Governments and NGOs the world over love to quote the Scandinavian model when looking at education, child care, health care, and so on. While I would not necessarily agree on many of the Nordic approaches, one area where they have led the world is in curbing the exploitation of women in the sex industry. It has proved so successful that the model has now been adopted by Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, Ireland and France, and is being considered in Israel, Luxembourg and Italy.
The Nordic Model (NM) criminalises the purchase of “sexual services”, that is, by the predominantly male clientele and includes pimps and brothel owners, but decriminalises those working within systems of prostitution, that is, the prostitutes themselves (mainly women). This has the effect of driving down demand for “services”. The NM also provides comprehensive support services to prostitutes to enable them to get out of the “industry” and includes public education programs on the harms of prostitution.
CATWA maintains that, unlike decriminalising prostitution – which evidence shows expands the prostitution market and increases sex-trafficking – the Nordic approach reduces the overall “market” and sex trafficking. The European Parliament has endorsed the NM as best practice for preventing sexual exploitation and recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women.
In 2008, a Swedish survey of 2,500 18–74 year olds found that 7.9 per cent reported buying sex. This compared with a 1996 poll, one year before the NM was introduced in Sweden, in which 13.6 per cent of respondents reported having bought sex.
The NM has also helped reduce the prostitution “industry”. Sweden had an estimated 2500–3000 people engaged in prostitution in the mid 1990s; the number had fallen to 650 people by 2008. By way of comparison, Denmark, where prostitution is legal, had 5567 people involved in prostitution despite only having 59 per cent of the population of Sweden. To put it another way, it had, per capita, 15 times the number of prostitutes of Sweden. Similarly, Norway, before it adopted the NM, had, per capita, eight times the number of prostitutes of Sweden.
The NM actively aims to reduce the sexual exploitation of women through prostitution and sex-trafficking. In contrast, organisation Collective Shout has maintained that “the Australian Anti-People Trafficking Interdepartmental Committee not only restricts its focus to trafficking taking place ‘outside the sex industry’ (with program funding directed accordingly), but openly declares an ongoing intent to exclude the sex industry from view: ‘During the next year there will be a continued focus on issues related to trafficking of people for exploitation outside the commercial sex industry.’” This blinkered approach allows sexual exploitation to continue expanding while giving the impression that it does not pose a problem to authorities.
If that were not enough, instead of trying to reduce sexual exploitation, the Northern Territory Department of Attorney-General and Justice is recommending treating prostitution as a protected attribute in the discussion paper, “Modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act, September 2017” (p14)whichproposes radical changes to the NT Anti-Discrimination Act.
The proposal argues that “lawful sex work” could be an attribute under the act because “discrimination of sex workers often occurs due to negative stigma attached to the occupation based on stereotyped views around drug use and assumed health status”. The assumption here is that the only exploitation involved in prostitution is by people saying unkind things about sex workers rather than the inherent exploitation of the (mainly) women whose bodies are used as sex objects.
Entrenching prostitution as a protected attribute in law would only serve to fuel the exploitation of women through prostitution and sex-trafficking. With NT’s close proximity to Asia, will this mean that Darwin will become a new centre for prostitution and sex-trafficking, fed by Asian crime syndicates trafficking women from Asia?
Of the approved brothels in metropolitan Sydney, a 2012 report, “The sex industry in New South Wales: A report to the Ministry of Health”, found that more than 50 per cent of survey respondents were “Asian” or of “other non-English speaking background”, with nearly 45 per cent speaking only “poor” or “fair” English. The Asianisation of the sex industry is well documented and the inability of many non-English speaking women to relate incidents of sexual slavery makes detection difficult.
The state and federal governments must adopt new methods to tackle the problem of sex-trafficking and its symbiotic partner, prostitution. To date, despite the magnitude of the problem, there have been few convictions and few inroads made into its elimination. The Nordic Model should be adopted by all states and territories and active efforts made by border authorities to identify and intercept groups or individuals entering Australia known to be targeted by sex-traffickers or knowingly here to engage in prostitution.
 “African teen used as ‘sex slave’, brought to Sydney on fake passport, police say”, ABC News, May 19, 2017.
 Select Committee on the Regulation of Brothels. Legislative Assembly of New South Wales Inquiry into the Regulation of Brothels, November 2015, p52.
 Ibid. p49
 Ibid. p53
 Ibid. point 4.31, p53.
 Suzy Freeman-Greene, “Prostitution to be legalised and most penalties dropped”, The Age, July 1, 1986.
 Mary Sullivan and Sheila Jeffreys, “Legalising prostitution is not the answer: The example of Victoria, Australia”, p2.
 Ibid. p3.
 Ibid. p12.
 Op. cit., point 4.34, p54.
 Ibid. p48
 Ibid. p54
 Ibid. p53
 Country Narratives, U.S. Department of State Trafficking Persons Report 2017, pp71–73.
 Cameron Stewart, “Asian slaves to the Australian sex industry”, Weekend Australian magazine, February 1, 2014.
 World Vision, “Trafficking is a global problem”, Child slavery and trafficking.
 “Shocking finding: Women used as sex slaves in Melbourne and Sydney”, News.com.au
 Op. cit. .
 Melissa Farley PhD, et al., “Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries”, Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, 3–4, 2004.
 “Demand change: Understanding the Nordic approach to prostitution”, CATWA, 2017. Ibid. pp12–13.
 “How long can the sex industry deny trafficking?”, Collective Shout.
 Discussion Paper: Modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act September 2017, Department of the Attorney-General and Justice, Northern Territory Government.
 The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine. University of New South Wales. The sex industry in New South Wales, A report to the NSW Ministry of Health.