JOHN HIGHFIELD: The Federal Government, and particularly Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, are today being accused of being indifferent to the corrupt trafficking of women and girls for the sex trade in Australia.
The accusations have been given momentum by the recent death in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre of a Thai woman who was brought to Australia at the age of 12 on a passport which bore no relationship to the person bringing her through the immigration counter at Sydney Airport as the entry point, and of the incarceration of another young Asian woman in Maribyrnong Detention Centre a few days ago.
Lobby groups say they've been trying for years to get official immigration action. They estimate that up to 1000 women and girls work in appalling conditions, their freedoms severely curtailed and under constant threat in Australia.
The Federal Government, however, insists that those who agree to come here to work in the sex industry are not being trafficked. But the Federal Opposition says it's morally unacceptable to quibble about definitions when women and girls have no choice but to work as prostitutes to pay back debts and receive immigration clearance into Australia under false pretences.
Rebecca Barrett reports.
REBECCA BARRETT: There are no official figures to determine the extent of trafficking of women and girls for the sex trade in Australia. Last year the Immigration Department caught around 100 women working here illegally as prostitutes.
The Shadow Minister for Immigration, Julia Gillard, believes the problem is much greater and the Government is ignoring it.
JULIA GILLARD: The problem is that the Minister for Immigration is quibbling about what is "people trafficking". The Minister says a woman hasn't been "trafficked" if she knew that she was coming to Australia to work in the sex trade and that it doesn't matter how she's treated when she gets here, if she knows that she was working in the sex trade, that's not "trafficking". I simply don't agree with that definition.
REBECCA BARRETT: Neither do others. Dr Louise Newman is the NSW chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
LOUISE NEWMAN: It's well known that many of these women are coerced and threatened. Many have suffered extremes of trauma and maltreatment for prolonged periods of time and the psychological and emotional effects of that sort of treatment really make it impossible in many situations for women to give any sort of consent to these sorts of processes.
REBECCA BARRETT: Kathleen Maltzahn works for Project Respect, an organisation that works of behalf of women brought to Australia to work in the sex industry. On a mobile phone from China, she says many women are here to pay back enormous debts and their lives and families are threatened if they don't pay up.
KATHLEEN MALTZAHN: The women often have quite severe curtailments on their freedom of movement. So their passport's taken, they're locked in at night, they're ferried from the brothel back to the place where they're living, they can't go out by themselves.
REBECCA BARRETT: Thirty-one year-old Noi, a Thai woman allegedly kept imprisoned in a Sydney brothel before she was deported this week, apparently tried to tell her story to Immigration officials to help catch her captors.
Kathleen Maltzahn says her story was ignored and Immigration officials are often unwilling to act on information given to them by women and girls. She's accused authorities of not asking the right questions.
Dr Louise Newman says many Immigration officers are ill-equipped to deal with such traumatised and distressed women who might be reluctant to detail their experiences.
LOUISE NEWMAN: In many cases we can't assume that Immigration officers and others are aware of the complexity of the situation or necessarily very familiar with the whole problem of international trafficking. They might not be trained appropriately in how to actually deal with that sort of information. So the questions might not be being asked, or important pieces of information might not actually be put together to give a complete picture.
REBECCA BARRETT: The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, says it's up to police not Immigration officials to investigate sex slavery.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I find it hard to believe that there are people who have information, that we are not asking the right questions to elicit allegations of sex slavery, and don't put the information that they have to the police. I mean, if they are seriously putting that we don't try to elicit that information but the information is there, then presumably they have it and they should bring that information forward.
REBECCA BARRETT: Mr Ruddock stresses that the Government treats trafficking and sex slavery very seriously, but maintains it's wrong to assume all women are working against their will.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: There is no suggestion that every one of those women is the subject of sex trade or bondage. What you have to then elicit is whether there is evidence of trafficking and the number of cases that we refer, and we have referred a number of cases, are relatively modest.
JOHN HIGHFIELD: Philip Ruddock is the Australian Immigration Minister. Rebecca Barrett reporting.
© 2003 Australian Broadcasting Corporation