Women who have and have not

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  • Published 20041207
  • ISBN: 9780733314544
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

Van was told to do “hot tea” with the man, which meant she had warm tea in her mouth during oral sex. She couldn’t insist he use a condom. Afterwards, the pimp drove her back to the apartment where he locked the door from the outside so she couldn’t leave. Once inside the apartment, she sat on the sofa and opened her diary. She wrote down “7” and added up the new total, 233. She would have to be with 767 more men before her debt bondage contract was paid off. With a razor blade, she made some more cuts on her arm near the old scars. She thought of home and hoped she could finish her contract soon so that she could start being paid and send some money back to her son.

THIS STORY IS a composite of stories of trafficked women in Australia I have heard in my work for trafficked women over the past two years. There are many stories of trafficked women. In September 2001, Puongtong Simaplee died in a pool of vomit in Sydney’s Villawood immigration detention centre, having told Australian immigration authorities that she had been sold into prostitution aged 12, brought to Australia aged 15, and worked in Sydney brothels since. Simaplee died after three days in Villawood without receiving counselling, legal advice or proper medical assistance. According to medical evidence accepted by the NSW deputy state coroner, simple measures could have saved her life.

I appeared as a pro bono lawyer at Simaplee’s inquest. As a white Australian lawyer under 30 with a few years’ work experience, the world is my oyster. I could probably gain legal entry into and work rights for any country of my choice. Next year, when I travel to London, New York and Rome to work on migration issues, I will probably drink the same imported beers, buy the same brands of clothes and eat the same sushi, pasta and sandwiches as I do in inner-urban Melbourne. Such is the homogenous consumerism, global freedom and labour market opportunity of the lucky ones in the global village.

The unlucky ones, on the other hand, might earn in a night selling their bodies what I spend in an hour on vodka at a bar with my friends; die of exposure in a refugee camp in Pakistan while you adjust the air-conditioning in your car; scramble across the desert avoiding United States border police as you plan your holiday at a Mexican beach; send their children off to work in mines as your children attend primary school; drown in a boat on the way to Australia as your parents plan a cruise in Alaska; or suffocate in a truck in transit to a promised migration destination as you vote for a political party that promises to be tougher on migration.

The “have-nots” – men and women – in our global village face poverty, unemployment, lack of education, wars, natural disasters and conflicts. And if they try to journey to a lucky country, they are likely to be labelled “illegals”, detained and deported. The unlucky ones are often stuck where they are, geographically and economically. Or if they do cross borders, their vulnerability to exploitation and their risk of getting stranded is significant.


VERY OFTEN, THE unlucky ones are women. Women struggling to pay the rent and to buy a square meal in a desperately poor village/town/city somewhere in the developing world may fall prey to the false promises of people traffickers, who offer them the dual enticements of a job and travel. People traffickers lurk all over the world, luring women from poor countries, moving them through transit countries and orchestrating their exploitation in destination countries. Unlike people smugglers, who are paid to simply move someone across a border, people traffickers abduct, coerce and deceive women into travelling to another country so that they can exploit them for profit.

Statistics on trafficking are difficult to obtain because trafficking is an underground activity, but a US Government report published in 2003 estimated that 800,000 to 900,000 people worldwide are trafficked each year[i]. Research by Anti-Slavery International in 2000 concluded[ii] that, based only on reported cases, between 142 and 1420 women are trafficked into the United Kingdom each year. In just two months of research in 2004, more than 300 incidents of trafficking in Australia over the previous three years were identified by Project Respect, a Melbourne-based organisation. The US State Department stated in its 2003 annual international Trafficking In Persons Report, “Australia is a destination country for Chinese and South-East Asian women trafficked for prostitution … in the past, some trafficking victims may have been unintentionally deported as illegal immigrants”. [iii]

Traffickers loot and plunder wrecked lives and economies and are perpetrators of serious international crimes. The state of the world provides the conditions traffickers need to operate. The causes of trafficking lie not just in organised crime, but in the feminisation of poverty, the absence of safe and legal migration channels from poor to prosperous countries and the low status of women in both. Without this reality, trafficking would not flourish. Even if a trafficking victim escapes and returns home, the miserable root causes of her vulnerability remain. Lacking a job, a house and an education, she may quickly be re-trafficked. Until these root causes are tackled, we won’t beat the traffickers.

The women brought to Australia are mainly from Asia and are often exploited in the sex industry. They are forced to provide sex, often unprotected, and often receive no payment. Internationally, the patterns of trafficking for prostitution vary: at the beginning of the journey, some women are completely duped, others are told half truths and some know what will happen but feel they have no choice.[iv] For example, some of the victims are told by the traffickers at home that they will do prostitution in the destination country, but do not realise that they will be locked up and forced to perform unsafe sex. Others are told they are going to work as air hostesses, nannies or waitresses, but on arrival are gang raped, imprisoned and pimped for the profit of traffickers. Other women travel on spouse visas, to be sold into brothels by their husbands.

In destination countries, such as Australia, Britain, Singapore and the US, the control of women by traffickers ranges from overt imprisonment by use of locks, bars and chains, to less conspicuous control by confiscation of travel documents and threats of deportation and retaliation against family members.[v] The forms of exploitation also vary. In Australia, some women have to perform unpaid sex with men in brothels to the value of $45,000 before they are set free. In Europe, teenage Moldovan girls have had their teeth knocked out to increase the pleasure of oral sex for their customers. Vietnamese mail-order brides have arrived in Taiwan to learn that they are the second wife ordered on the internet. Other trafficked women have been used as baby farms and domestic slaves.

The end to this massive global trafficking problem will not be reached by characterising trafficking as merely a problem of organised crime, illegal prostitution or border control. Yes, people traffickers operate as international networks of organised criminals whose flesh trade rivals the profitability of gun smuggling and drug trafficking. But approaches to trafficking that focus only on criminalising traffickers and strengthening border control, ignore crucial dimensions of the trafficking problem. Namely: violence against women, women’s lack of safe, secure and sustainable employment, women’s lack of migration options and the exploitation of and demand for prostitutes.


VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN is one of the reasons women look to escape and are willing to trust traffickers. But British research indicates that many women and girls in the sex industry leave their homes in search of safety from physical and sexual abuse only to find more violence.Anchor

Violence against women also characterises what happens to trafficked women in destination countries. The Poppy Project concluded, “The methods of control used by pimps and traffickers are similar to those used by domestic-violence perpetrators: women are denied freedom of movement, isolated, deprived of their earnings, threatened, and made dependent on drugs or alcohol. Physical and sexual violence are central to their maintenance of control.”[vi]

Demand for sex in brothels with exotic and compliant women, coupled with a lack of respect for women in the sex industry, drives a market for “sex slaves” (as trafficked women are often labelled in Australia). A health worker in Melbourne told me how the man she had been counselling regarding his domestic violence confided proudly that he had stopped beating and raping his wife because he was going to a prostitute instead. Facing the stigma of “prostitute” and “illegal immigrant”, and remembering country-of-origin experiences sometimes as dreadful as those in the brothel she is trapped in, the trafficked woman stands little chance of dignity. The relationship between violence against women and trafficking demands counter-trafficking strategies that address the status of and protection of women in all societies.

The scarcity of work and the lack of migration opportunities to get out of home countries contribute to women’s vulnerability. Women represent the highest percentage of unskilled paid labour, including assembly-line labour, cleaning, cooking and caring work, either in private houses as domestic workers or in restaurants and hotels or as entertainers and prostitutes.[vii] In 1997, Richard Blau, a Manhattan businessman, was charged with abusing an immigrant Burmese woman whom he kept chained in his bedroom for two weeks after offering her a job as a cleaning lady.[viii] In the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, a woman escaped domestic servitude in 2003 after being exploited as an unpaid maid.[ix] In Sydney in the late 1990s, a Thai woman who had been promised a job in a restaurant in Australia was beaten and forced to have sex with brothel customers.[x] As the main work options for clandestine migrants are in the informal sector, women in the developing world are easy targets for traffickers. “It is not by coincidence that it is these sectors where trafficking predominantly takes place.”[xi] Accordingly, programs that promote unionisation, protection and regulation of the informal employment sectors may decrease women’s vulnerability.


AS GOVERNMENTS GET tougher on border control, channels of migration are harder to find. The legal migration avenues that remain open can be accessed by those with qualifications and work experiences necessary to meet skilled-migration categories. The obstacles women face in education and work, and women’s over-representation in home duties and unskilled labour, mean they are disadvantaged in the competition for the relatively few migration places. These barriers may not have been designed to keep women out, but that is their effect.

One of the few migration options available to women is the spouse visa. Women in this category must rely on male sponsors – a reliance that can make them reluctant to leave their violent husbands. In 1996, a Texan man was convicted of murdering his fourth wife, a bride from the Philippines[xii]. In 1996, US lawyer Donald Young of Pennsylvania was charged with offences including rape, assault, false imprisonment, harassment and stalking in relation to two “mail–order brides” from Honduras whom he imprisoned and raped.[xiii] In 2003, a 22–year–old Russian “mail–order bride” was allegedly beaten to death with the heel of a shoe by her 64–year–old Australian husband in their Mount Druitt home.[xiv]

The holy grail of humanitarian migration – the refugee visa – is also less often granted to women. Legal tests for refugee protection, such as “well–founded fear of persecution for political reasons”, are more often applicable to men. It is harder for the woman who cooked for the freedom fighter to claim political oppression than it is for the freedom fighter himself.[xv] Furthermore, onshore asylum applications, which may be processed more quickly than applications made from refugee–producing countries, are more often made by men, who have greater social and economic means to flee difficult regions. Paradoxically, the influx of asylum seekers to Australia from Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban saw a vast over–representation of men for a mixture of reasons, not least of which was that it was much harder for women than men to flee from Afghani villages and across the land, due to the oppression of women in that country.

Describing Australia’s approach to trafficking, the US State Department report stated that “the Australian Government is making determined efforts to identify and elicit the co–operation of trafficking victims in providing criminal evidence for the prosecution of traffickers”.[xvi] So far, the official response to trafficking has been short–sighted. It has been crime–focused, rather than victim–focused. Until Australia provides visas to trafficking victims based on the victim’s need for help, rather than her usefulness to a police prosecution, this criticism should be squarely made. A new trafficking witness–protection visa introduced in Australia this year is only available to victims who have made a significant contribution to the investigation or prosecution of traffickers.[xvii] This means that trafficking victims have little protection from immigration detention, deportation and perhaps re–trafficking if they do not co–operate with Australian police, even if their non–co–operation is based on their terror of the traffickers. In reality, a trafficked woman must testify in court if she wants a trafficked–victim–witness visa. The impact of this requirement is harsh. The difficulties for rape complainants pursuing criminal justice are well known. Think, then, of the difficulties a trafficked woman would face in the adversarial legal system. We do not say to a rape victim that support is contingent on reporting the rape to police, yet this is what we effectively say to trafficked women.

Of the Australian Government’s $20 million package to battle trafficking, announced in October 2003, the lion’s share so far has gone to the Australian Federal Police. Little government funding has been given to organisations that work daily with women in the sex industry in Sydney and Melbourne where trafficking is most significant. No specific funding has been given to legal aid or the specialist refugee and immigration community legal services that advise trafficked women on their migration options. A significant contract was awarded to a Queensland–based training organisation, Southern Edge, to assist those women who actively co–operate with police prosecutions. Trafficked women who refuse to help police, or whose evidence is unwanted by police, are only supported for a limited initial period of 30 days. As a result the burden of supporting most women falls to under–resourced community groups.

So while trafficking begins in developing countries as a result of violence against women and the lack of women’s jobs and rights in those places, the demand starts here. It starts with those men who have sex with trafficked women in brothels without moral concern about whether the women have consented to be in the brothels, whether they are sex slaves or without wondering about the events in their lives that led them here. Developing countries need the help of wealthy countries to provide women with more life options. Ending trafficking is Australia’s responsibility as much as any other country’s. When Australia adopts a victim–centred approach by funding and supporting programs that assist trafficked women in both source and destination countries, and provides them with access to migration advice, visa rights, and social support, the traffic in women may begin to stop.

[i] Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report, 2003http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2003

[ii] http://www.antislavery.org/homepage/antislavery/trafficking.htm

[iii] Above number 1.

[iv] Testimony by Steven R. Galster, director of Global Survival Network, before the Commission on Security and Co–operation in Europe, Helsinki Commission, June 28, 1999.

[v] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms AnchorR. Coomaraswamy, on trafficking in women, women’s migration and violence against women, submitted in accordance with Commission of Human Rights resolution 1997/44 Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective (2000), page 14.

[vi] “Parallels between exiting prostitution and leaving domestic violence”, Poppy Project (2004).

[vii] R. Coomaraswamy, Global Survival Network, before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helsinki Commission, June 28, 1999, p 15.

[viii] United Press International, August 20, 1997, cited at http://www.catwinternational.org/fb/usa1.html

[ix] Unpublished report of Project Respect, “One Victim of Traffic is One Victim Too Many”, 2004. The author was one of the author’s of this report.

[x] Refugee Review Tribunal decision, reference: V98/08467 (16 February 1999)

[xi] See AnchorMarjan Wijers and AnchorMarieke van Doorninck, “Only rights can stop wrongs: A critical assessment of anti–trafficking strategies”, paper presented at EU/IOM STOP European Conference on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, September 18–20, 2002, European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium.

[xii] Lena H Sun, The Washington Post, March 8, 1998, cited at www.catwinternational.org/fb/usa1.html

[xiii] The Boston Globe, August 6, 1997, cited at www.catwinternational.org/fb/usa1.html

[xiv] “Grim end to bride’s search for good life”, The Sydney Morning Herald, January 5, 2003.

[xv] Comments by Lucy Fiske, Associate Lecturer, Curtin University of Technology and Mary–Ann Kenny, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University, in a presentation at the Amnesty International conference on violence against women, Fremantle, Australia, June 4–6, 2004.

[xvi] Above number 3.

[xvii] See Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth), regulations 2.07AJ and 2.07AK.

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About the author

Georgina Costello

Georgina Costello is a Melbourne barrister practising in commercial and administrative law. She has done many pro bono cases, including for refugees, women in...

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