KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 4 / October-November-December 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

by Kelly George

ON 25 SEPTEMBER a collective of community and human rights organisations held a vigil in Melbourne for two women who died recently in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. A shrine ceremony was carried out at intervals in the midst of the busy Bourke Street Mall, followed by a dignified procession up Swanston Street to the State Library.

The bang of the drum and the wafting incense invoked a sombre tone, whilst igniting the curiosity of passers by who took part by laying a white chrysanthemum at the shrine and signing a letter to the Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Phillip Ruddock. Speakers outside the State Library included representatives from the agencies who organised the vigil: Melba Marginson from Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Coalition, Hong Vo from the Vietnamese Women's Association and Kathleen Maltzahn from Project Respect.

The vigil was held with a number of objectives in mind. It was suspected that the two young women who died in detention were originally trafficked to Australia for prostitution. The vigil aimed to raise public awareness of detention of trafficked women and create media interest in the issue generally. With associated lobbying the government was also encouraged to implement policies to support their 1999 Slavery and Sexual Servitude legislation, under which to date there have been no prosecutions. The Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) was also presented with information about alternative practices and support services in regard to detained women. Lastly but certainly not least, the vigil provided some recognition for the two young women who died so far from home in tragic circumstances.

The vigil coincided with the death anniversary of Puang Phong Simaplee, the first young woman who died in September last year. This seemed particularly important given that still no coronial inquest has been held into her death and her family remain in Thailand. The vigil also commemorated the death of the second woman Thi Hang Le, who died in January 2002, and it was intended that both women were remembered on that day. (After the vigil a coronial inquest was held into the death of Thi Hang Le, and it now seems that she may have arrived in Australia by means other than trafficking).

Currently, women who are located by DIMIA in brothels without appropriate visas are placed in immigration detention and removed from Australia, usually within 48 hours. In view of this, women who have been trafficked can be removed without any access to support, debriefing or legal advice.

Without support and information on organisations that could assist within sending countries, trafficked women are essentially being re-victimised when they return to the same situation that led to their vulnerability to trafficking in the first place. This may mean being re-trafficked, either back to Australia or on to another receiving country, or suffering violence at the hands of those who believe the women have collaborated with authorities and endangered their operation. Such immediate removal from Australia also minimises the opportunities for trafficked women to participate in legal action against traffickers, thus enabling trafficking operators to continue their activities unabated.

Trafficking is a form of violence that makes women vulnerable. Detaining and removing such women without support and advice is an added form of violence. The vigil held in Melbourne in September sought to shed light on the issue of trafficking for prostitution and provide an opportunity for remembrance, not only of those who died recently in detention.

As Melba Marginson said on the day, "There are not enough flowers here today to represent the millions of women and children worldwide who are trafficked for prostitution every year...."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: KELLY GEORGE is currently on fieldwork placement with Project Respect as part of her Social Work degree at Monash University. Kelly is also a Settlement Support Worker in Melbourne, assisting migrants and refugees during the initial years of settlement in Australia, and has worked extensively overseas in education and development.