x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Traffickers dash dream of Australia

Tempted by the promise of a new life, men, women and children are thrust into debt and tangled in a web of fear.

A Sex worker peers down a street in Sydney.
A Sex worker peers down a street in Sydney.

SYDNEY // When "Posie" was offered a chance to work in Australia as a cook, earning enough money to pay the medical costs of her sick sister back in Asia, it seemed like a dream come true. But the dream turned into a nightmare when on arriving in Sydney, she was locked up in a flat and told she would have to have sex with 500 men to pay off a debt of AUS$40,000 (Dh127,000). "The owner said he would shame my family by putting up pictures of me naked in my hometown and that he would tell everyone about what I did," she said. "He said that he would have my family hurt if I didn't do what he said and that I would be found and hurt and killed if I ran away. He told me that the police would not help me."

Posie's story is not unusual in Australia. Aid agencies working with trafficking victims have said it is a growing problem in the country. Although no official statistics are available, anecdotal evidence cited by non-governmental agencies suggests that about 1,000 men, women and children from across Asia and parts of Eastern Europe are tricked or coerced into travelling to Australia every year.

Often they are promised lucrative jobs in restaurants or beauty salons, on farms or construction sites, but the harsh reality is that many end up in Australia's legal sex trade or shackled to back-breaking manual labour, forced to pay off huge debts incurred in the travel. "Trafficking is an emerging issue for Australia," said Jennifer Burns, the director of the Anti-Slavery Project at the University of Technology Sydney. "There is an extreme amount of underreporting of cases by victims. It is the kind of experience that is so bleak.

"They see the opportunity to go to a country like Australia and make a fortune and have a new life, that's the kind of environment we're working in. Others are desperate financially and are looking for a way out, and those people are particularly vulnerable." When she was not working in the brothel, Posie, who did not want to use her real name or reveal any details about her identity, was locked up in the apartment with six other women.

"Once I asked a customer for help, but he told the owner and I was beaten to punish me. I felt worthless - that I was nothing. My life went dark." In response to the growing incidences of trafficking, the Salvation Army has opened Australia's first safe house for victims in Sydney, providing a sanctuary and legal advice. "I'm fairly comfortable saying there are thousands of victims of trafficking across Australia across a full spectrum of labour sectors," said Jenny Stangar, who manages the hostel. "Probably the greatest myth is that all victims of trafficking are Asian women working in the sex industry. The demographic profile includes men, women and children from all over the world working in a whole variety of industries. The youngest I ever worked with was three and the oldest person was 72."

Community groups have said that some workers are employed as maids in kitchens or end up in servile marriages, unable to leave because they lack the legal documents, often their passports are taken on arrival, or are told they must pay off a debt. One of the reasons Australia provides such a fertile ground for trade in people is because its economy is so short of workers. Some agricultural labourers have been lured to Australia from the Gujarat region of India, arriving on tourist visas and forced into slave-like conditions on outback fruit farms and saddled with debts covering exorbitant travel and accommodation expenses. One of those labourers, a young woman from India, was raped by her boss, and another man suffered serious injuries when he was crushed by a forklift lorry, leaving his legs shattered, according to lawyers who are representing the Indians in their attempts to persuade the immigration department to grant them permanent visas.

In this murky world there are few, if any, employment rights. When they are no longer needed, their employment is terminated, and most are eventually deported. The web of fear and intimidation is so pervasive that traffickers and their associates are seldom brought to justice. Both the police and aid agencies say sophisticated criminals are involved, although it is not clear how large or small their operations are. Traffickers often use "spotters" or recruiters in Asia, for example, to identify those most vulnerable. Then there are middlemen and farmers, builders or brothel owners on the receiving end of the transactions.

In Australia trafficking convictions are rare; there have been only a handful, but the government has established a dedicated task force and has insisted that the battle is being won, although the exact scale of the problem is unknown. Encouraging victims to give evidence is a major obstacle. "Dale", who declined to give his real name, runs several brothels in Sydney, and said he believes threats of violence will force most women to keep quiet. "The gangs are in a position that if a girl runs away, they can exert pressure on her family. Children have been kidnapped from kindergarten or primary school in Thailand and the girl is told they will be sold if she doesn't go back to work," he said.

Posie was eventually freed after she paid off her debt, and she is currently applying for a visa to stay permanently in Australia. "[The] immigration minister gave me a chance to start a new life in Australia," one said. "I am happy. I am studying, but it will take some time to reach my goal to be a normal person and to have a life that I had always dreamed of. "Next year I want to go home and visit my family, but I will never tell them what happened to me in Australia." @Email:pmercer@thenational.ae