Much has been written about the global problem of trafficking in persons, especially women and girls for the purposes of sexual slavery. What will be looked at here is the Australian response to trafficking of women beginning with the Australian Federal Government’s implementation of a $20 million anti-trafficking package. The package includes:
What is significant are the new visa arrangements and victim support measures which aim to shift the focus on victims from punishment to support. Previous trafficking victims found working illegally in Australia’s sex industry were usually detained in immigration detention centres and then deported within two days. One of the problems with this approach was that it failed to address the issue of whether the trafficked women were being held in servitude or slavery in contravention of human rights standards. While the new approach is an improvement on the past policy of deportation, it is nonetheless grounded in the spirit of law enforcement rather than victim or rights protection.
The visa now available for suspected victims of trafficking is a bridging visa lasting 30 days while claims of trafficking are being investigated. If the victim agrees to provide assistance to the police with their inquiries then the victim can apply for a Criminal Justice Stay Visa which allows the trafficked person to stay in Australia and work during the criminal justice process. When the Criminal Justice Stay Visa expires, the trafficked person may be eligible for the Witness Protection (Trafficking) Visa which allows the trafficked person to stay temporarily or permanently depending on the particular circumstances of the case.
While it is still relatively early days for these visa arrangements, anecdotal evidence suggests that information on how to apply for these visas is very difficult to come by, so the question muse be asked – how effective are these visa measures likely to be? The new visa regime seems to operate conditionally on the premise that the victim will cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. Given the threats of violence and reprisal that victims of trafficking are subject to, what if the victim of trafficking is under too much fear to cooperate with investigations? There would be very limited support given the conditions of cooperation. The rationale behind the conditions is that it will be easier for people to fraudulently claim to be victims of trafficking.
However, in keeping with a more rights-based perspective, in Italy there is a residency permit available to victims of trafficking that is not conditional on collaboration in a prosecution case. Since its enactment, prosecution rates have increased and there have been no reports of abuses of the visa requirements. As it stands in Australia, it still remains to be seen just how effective these anti-trafficking measures will be in protecting victims’ rights and prosecuting traffickers.
Most of the work related to supporting the anti-trafficking measures is implemented by NGOs such as Project Respect. Victim support measures can include outreach for trafficking victims in brothels, practical assistance for women who have escaped trafficking and training programs for trafficked women who have been granted permits to remain in Australia. Most pressing of all however, is the need to support victims of trafficking who do not fit neatly into the visa regime – those who are unable to cooperate with a prosecution case but otherwise fit the criteria of a victim of trafficking.
However, NGOs face considerable obstacles in the battle against trafficking for sexual servitude and exploitation. The fight against trafficking in women requires the combined forces of governments, NGOs, police and law enforcement bodies on both the ‘supply’ side and the ‘demand’ side. This means that broader issues of poverty and disenfranchisement which make persons, particularly women, vulnerable to trafficking, must also be addressed.