Trafficking in women: Where have we come from and where to from here?

Pru Goward, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Project Respect Forum, Friday 12th August 2005, 1.00 '� 2.15 pm, Fitzroy Town Hall, Napier Street, Melbourne VIC 3000, 20 minutes


Thank you to Kathleen for that introduction and I am pleased to be able to join you all here today for this very important forum and the launch this evening of the 'National Network against Trafficking Women and Girls for Prostitution'.

This session as you know will be looking at where we have come from and where we are going with trafficking. The Commission has been involved with this issue for some years and so I would like to focus on the history of the issue in Australia as a way of giving us some perspective about how we might best move forward.

The Commission's involvement has been part of a growing international movement towards awareness of the seriousness and complexity of issues regarding trafficking and an understanding that the problem needs co-ordinated international responses.

It is important to note the differences between trafficking, trafficking in women and trafficking in women for prostitution.

Trafficking in women is not only for the purposes of prostitution '� trafficking is used for a range of purposes including domestic, agricultural and sweatshop labour, begging, illegal adoptions and marriage, in addition to prostitution.

However, the US Government has estimated that more than half of all victims trafficked internationally and 70 per cent of all trafficked women are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation.1 The International Labour Organization has found that 98 per cent of people trafficked into sexual exploitation are women and girls.2

And while the statistics are not clear, the evidence suggests that Australia is overwhelmingly a destination country for women victims trafficked into debt bonded prostitution. As a result it is these women whom we must remain most focused on.

While the estimates vary, data gathered by Project Respect suggests there are approximately 1000 trafficked women working in the sex industry in Australia at any time with around 300 women trafficked into the country each year.

And it is critical in our discussions of this issue, that we keep these women at the centre of the debate. These are all individual human beings - women with families, financial and emotional needs and aspirations. They are women who may be vulnerable because they are poor and lack education, job opportunities or self esteem.

Clearly the Commission approaches our involvement in this issue from such a human rights perspective.

This means considering the human rights of women who are trafficked for prostitution in all circumstances, importantly those trafficked into debt bonded prostitution but also those who are sex workers in their country of origin. All women working in the sex industry '� whatever their status '� are entitled to basic human rights.

Traffickers violate the basic human rights of all people to freedom, autonomy and human dignity and to be free of exploitation, abuse and slavery. The sexual servitude and abuse experienced by the women, men and children who suffer though trafficking for prostitution and marriage violates their basic rights to privacy and personal integrity.

As many of you here will know only too well, the victims of trafficking for prostitution often face physical abuse of a particularly violent nature, and sexual abuse which causes not only physical harm but deep psychological and emotional trauma for the victim.

These on going violations of human rights that victims experience mean that trafficking must be considered a grave breach of human rights.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights bases its work on trafficking on two core principles:

  • First that human rights must be at the centre of any credible anti-trafficking strategy; and
  • Secondly that these strategies must be developed and implemented from the perspective of those who most need their human rights protected and promoted.

A human rights perspective acknowledges the complex dynamic of trafficking '� dynamics of power, gender, class, race, and crime. And such a perspective aims to ensure that the victims of trafficking are protected - that our response causes women no further harm and avoids adding to their trauma and brutalisation.

Human Rights Watch (international) has emphasised the way that a human rights based methodology to trafficking differs from treating it simply as a migration or criminal justice issue:

  • Any program must first and foremost return control to the victims. It is only when we have created the space for the trafficking victim to see her or himself again as a person, not an object, whose agency we respect and whose value is inherent that she or he becomes a survivor.
  • Sometimes in a rush to accomplish other goals such as prosecuting traffickers, states focus on the victims for the information they can provide or their usefulness to the criminal justice system, The danger is that the states treat the victims as merely a pawn in the struggle between the state and the trafficker, not as a human being in need of services and deserving of respect.

While The Convention on Trafficking in Persons has been in place since 1949 as have provisions in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Article 6), the issue of trafficking has only been receiving significant attention in the last decade.

Until very recent times, the approach taken to women found by the Department of Immigration working in the sex industry without a valid visa was simply to deport them.

The case of Gary Glazner and Paul Donato Marino in 1999 first brought the attention of the Australian public to the issue of trafficking in a more substantial way.

The introduction of the Criminal Code Amendment (Slavery and Sexual Servitude) Act in 1999 marked the beginning of recent Government activity in this area.

While this legislation was a welcome development, there was still no capacity in the laws to treat victims of trafficking as anything other than illegal immigrants. As a result, despite the legislation, no prosecutions were initiated, with victims fearing immediate deportation.

Since 2000, the UN Protocol To Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons has more clearly highlighted what defines trafficking. One of the key elements of the Protocol is a definition of trafficking as:

  • the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, or fraud or deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control of another person, for the purpose of exploitation

The Protocol has been extremely important in shedding light on what constitutes trafficking and in helping to determine priorities for dealing with trafficking.

While there is certainly broad agreement that the needs of the women involved must be first and foremost in any discussion, there remain some differences in the approaches taken by NGOs in relation to trafficking.

It is not the position of the Commission that women (or men) can never in a position to freely undertake sex work of their own volition. It is important to resist stereotyping women as victims incapable of individual agency, and recognise that listening to the voices of all trafficked women is the basis of a comprehensive human rights approach.

The tragic death of Puongtong Simpalee at Villawood Detention Centre in 2001 again brought the issue of trafficking to the attention of the community and the media.

In 2002 the Australian Government hosted with Indonesia the first Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling and Trafficking and Related Transnational Crime in Bali.

As a result of the Bali process as it became known, Ministers from 36 countries pledged their commitment to take action on trafficking and ongoing regional working groups were set up to work on regional cooperation, legislation and law enforcement.

Australia signed the UN Trafficking Protocol in December of 2002 and indicated that it would ratify the Protocol when domestic legislation had been brought into line with the Protocol's requirements.

The NSW Coroners report into Puongtong Simpalee's death was released to significant media attention in April 2003. Two months later, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission launched an Inquiry into the Trafficking of Women for Sexual Servitude.

The Inquiry looked into the extent of trafficking in Australia, the ACC's relationship with other relevant commonwealth and state agencies and the adequacy of the current legislative framework.

In July of 2002 a meeting of the Australasian Police Minister's Council agreed that all law enforcement agencies should cooperate in the development of a national action plan to combat trafficking in women for sexual servitude and to undertake a review of the operational arrangements with the Department of Immigration, legislation, and intelligence and informational sharing protocols across all the jurisdictions.

Shortly afterward, in the most significant development to date, the Australian Government announced a package worth $20 million over four years to combat people trafficking. The initiatives were developed as part of the Commonwealth Action Plan to Eradicate Trafficking in Persons and included:

  • A new community awareness campaign to raise awareness of trafficking issues within Australia;
  • A new 23-member Australian Federal Police (AFP) mobile strike team (the Transnational Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking Team) to investigate trafficking and sexual servitude;
  • A new Senior Migration Officer (Compliance) in Thailand, focused on trafficking in persons;
  • Closer links between the AFP and Department of Immigration officers in the detection and investigation of trafficking and enhanced training on trafficking issues;
  • New visa arrangements for potentially trafficked persons;
  • Comprehensive victim support measures provided through contracted case managers,'� including appropriate accommodation and living expenses and access for victims to a wide range of social support, legal, medical and counselling services;
  • Enhancement of arrangements, including access to additional support, for the small number of potential victims who may be required to remain in immigration detention;
  • Development of a reintegration assistance project for trafficking victims who are returned to key source countries in South East Asia;
  • Improvements to legislation to comprehensively criminalise trafficking activity;
  • Legislative amendments to make telecommunications interception available for investigating'� trafficking offences, and
  • Ratification, once all domestic requirements are in place, of the United Nations Trafficking Protocol.

These changes were significant and reflected a growing awareness of the importance of trafficking, not only as an area of criminal concern, but one of human rights.

The inclusion of support measures for victims, new visa arrangements and reintegration assistance demonstrate a considerable shift in government thinking in relation to trafficking.

The last two years have seen a number of developments in line with the Action Plan. There have been further regional cooperation arrangements put in place with our South East Asian neighbours, additional capacity provided to criminal justice agencies to facilitate improved intelligence gathering and surveillance, and assistance to victims through the introduction of two new visa classes and new victim support programs.

In September last year, a draft of the Criminal Code Amendment (Trafficking in Persons Offences) Bill 2004 was released. The amendment to the Criminal Code inserts a new division into the Act dealing specifically with trafficking and debt bondage.

The Bill was reintroduced after it lapsed prior to the last federal election, and passed through the Parliament in June, coming into force just last week.

It is perhaps appropriate that this legislation has so recently come into force, almost on the eve of our forum today.

It is clear that Australia, and the international community, have made enormous leaps in relation to our awareness and attention to trafficking in the last decade, and while there remain some obvious gaps and ways in which we must lift our game, it is useful to reflect on just how far we have come.

It is also useful for us to realise that there continues to be a need for a multi pronged approach to tackling trafficking, both within Australia and internationally.

When we consider the value of cooperation, it is clear that it is important not only for human rights institutions but more generally in addressing complex human rights issues.

Trafficking is a problem that more than perhaps any other requires practical co-operation within the community, within government and non-government organisations and internationally.

At the Commission, as I previously mentioned, we have been involved in work on trafficking for some years now.

In addition to work about trafficking into Australia, in 2002 we began working internationally as part of the China-Australia Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program (HRTC) to undertake cooperative, multi-stage work on anti-trafficking in women and children with the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) and its provincial branches.

The China HRTC program was developed following a high level dialogue on human rights in August 1997 between Premier Li Peng and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

During the course of that initial dialogue, it was agreed that the two countries would undertake a program of technical cooperation aimed at strengthening the administration, promotion and protection of human rights in China.

The focus of Australian officials and NGOs has been on highlighting the human rights dimensions of trafficking and emphasising the importance of a coordinated inter-agency approaches which encompass prevention, rehabilitation, advocacy, awareness-raising, legislation and other measures.

Discussions have focussed on developing ideas for measures to prevent and address trafficking at local and regional levels, including processes for interagency cooperation.

The Commission has also been involved with anti-trafficking work with the ACWF in Thailand and Vietnam during 2004. In the context of an international issue such as trafficking in women and children, this cross cultural approach is a necessity for dealing with the problem in any one country.

It is of real importance that agencies in source countries such as China and destination countries such as Australia understand the challenges, constraints and approaches of the other in order to combat the problem.

One of the insights we have gained from our involvement in these activities is that without observing anti-trafficking work in progress it is difficult to assess how well equality and human rights rhetoric is implemented.

It is clear that in a similar way to Australia, international agencies dealing with the problem of trafficking victims often do not seem to take sufficient account of their privacy and may not respect the wishes of victims throughout the process.

Our own Australian experiences demonstrate how difficult it can be to ensure respect for the victim's wishes and decisions in the face of the imperatives of investigation and prosecution and I expect we will hear more about that from some of our speakers this afternoon.

This is a common difficulty around the region, as it is around the world, and is something that those of us working against trafficking, must continue to emphasise - the importance of a victim centred and human rights approach to anti-trafficking work.

A human rights approach must be comprehensive and extend to women who may not fit neatly into our characterisation of victims.

I look forward to hearing more from the other speakers this afternoon who have so much expertise to share in relation to trafficking.

As we are now almost two years on from the release of the Government's Action Plan it is perhaps a good time to reflect on our progress, learn from each other about the work we still need to achieve and map out a direction for future developments.

It is only by working together and listening to each other in such a multi-pronged and victim focused way that we will continue to make progress.

Thank you and good luck with your deliberations this afternoon.


  1. United States State Department (2004a), "Trafficking in persons report", United States State Department,
  2. International Labour Organisation (2005), "A global alliance against forced labour"