26 March 2014
Human trafficking

Human trafficking and Australia

We don't think of Australia as a destination for human trafficking. But it is, like everywhere else.

Too many men, women, and children continue to live in modern-day slavery through the scourge of human trafficking, even in advanced countries like Australia, Canada and the US.

Human trafficking is an umbrella term covering the recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.

Human trafficking appears in many guises. It might take the form of compelled commercial sexual exploitation, the prostitution of minors, debt bondage, or forced labor. The International Labour Organisation estimates that as many as 27 million men, women, and children around the world are victims of human trafficking.

People fall victim to trafficking for many reasons, as the US State Department reports. Some may simply be seeking a better life, a promising job, or even an adventure. Others may be poverty stricken and forced to migrate for work, or they may be marginalized by their society. Human traffickers understand these vulnerabilities, and the lack of information and power from which some people suffer, and take advantage of their victims using coercion and violence.

The US State Department's annual report on Trafficking in Persons provides an excellent state of play in global human trafficking. Its message is clear. No country is free of human trafficking, even Australia which is doing a good job in fighting human trafficking. Moreover, there will never be a final victory in the fight against human trafficking. It is a constant battle against traffickers who will always be searching for new ways to exploit human vulnerabilities.

Many Australians will have cold shivers while reading the US State Department's following report on their wonderful country:

"Australia is primarily a destination country for women subjected to forced prostitution and to a lesser extent, women and men subjected to forced labor. Child sex trafficking also occurs with a small number of Australian citizens, primarily teenage girls, exploited within the country, as well as some foreign victims.

Some women from Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, China, and, to a lesser extent, India, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and Africa migrate to Australia voluntarily intending to work legally or illegally in a number of sectors, including the sex trade. Subsequent to their arrival, however, some of these women are coerced into prostitution in both legal and illegal brothels.

There were news reports that some Asian organized crime groups recruit Asian women to migrate to Australia, sometimes on student visas, and then subsequently coerce them into the sex trade. The women and girls are sometimes held in captivity, subjected to physical and sexual violence and intimidation, manipulated through illegal drugs, and obliged to pay off unexpected or inflated debts to their traffickers. Some victims of sex trafficking have also been exploited in domestic servitude.

Men and women from several Pacific Islands, India, China, South Korea, and the Philippines are recruited to work temporarily in Australia. After their arrival, some are subjected by unscrupulous employers and labor agencies to forced labor in agriculture, horticulture, construction, cleaning, hospitality, manufacturing, and other sectors, such as domestic service. They face confiscation of their travel documents, confinement on the employment site, threats of physical harm, and debt bondage through inflated debts imposed by employers or labor agencies.

Most often, traffickers are part of small but highly sophisticated organized crime networks that frequently involve family and business connections between Australians and overseas contacts. During the year, one such syndicate relied on the established informal remittance system hawala as a means to launder its profits offshore.

Some traffickers attempted to hide their foreign victims from official notice or prevented victims from receiving assistance by abusing the legal system in order to create difficulties for victims who contact authorities for help. Foreign workers in the nursing, meat processing, manufacturing, agricultural, domestic and seafaring industries, as well as international students, may be vulnerable to trafficking. During the year, NGOs and other informed observers reported that some individuals on student visas, typically from Asia, became victims of forced labor and forced prostitution in Australia.

There are over 450,000 foreign students in Australia, many of whom spend up to the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in placement and academic fees, as completion of courses often leads to permanent residency in the country. Some of these foreign students work in the housekeeping and restaurant industries and are subject to a restriction of working a maximum of 20 hours per week under their visas. When some were pushed by employers to exceed the terms of their visas, they faced the risk of deportation, making them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers; during the year there were reports of such exploitation in restaurants and grocery stores near Melbourne."

The Australian government is very alert to the problem of human trafficking and is making great efforts to fight it. On International Women's Day 2013, 8 March, the government announced a new Australian Government Anti-Slavery Initiative which seeks to eliminate modern slavery in Australia and overseas.

The initiative is designed to ensure that its procurement rules and practices assist in identifying and stamping out slavery. In particular, it aims to improve procurement arrangements by: (i) processes: the Department of Finance and Deregulation will ensure that Commonwealth procurement arrangements adequately identify slavery as an important issue when considering the ethical behaviour of suppliers; (ii) advice to Agencies: the Department of Finance and Deregulation will issue revised procurement guidance to reinforce the need for specific actions or behaviors to eliminate the chances of slavery being used in supply chains; and (iii) training: the Department of Finance and Deregulation will strengthen training and development arrangements for Commonwealth procurement officers to reinforce specific legal and policy requirements, including reporting of breaches of policy.

This is an important show of leadership in the fight against slavery. It builds on other efforts of the Australian government like: the recent announced $50 million funding to continue the Asia Regional Trafficking in Persons program that trains police officers, prosecutors and judges to better combat people-trafficking in the region; Australia's aid program which supports initiatives to prevent violence against women, increase educational opportunity, and create economic opportunity within communities; and the Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking Act which passed through both Houses of Parliament last month.

As impressive as the efforts are, however, it is clear that the fight against human trafficking will be one of Australia's major challenges in this Asia Century.

Australia has a growing and deepening array of connections with Asia through trade, investment, finance, tourism, migration and international students, all of which provide tempting avenues for human trafficking. And such trafficking is often arranged by Asian organized crime syndicates which are rising in strength in the context of rapidly growing prosperity and opportunities for business, together with weak and corrupt governance, and above all an unwillingness in many Asian countries to enforce some of the laws on their books.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, migration, human trafficking, Australia, US State Department

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