This article appeared in the Weekend Australian 16 August 2003

Tricked, trafficked and terrified

Sex slaves are being tortured and possibly murdered but traffickers remain free to ply their trade, report Elisabeth Wynhausen and Natalie O'Brien

THE woman in the picture was bleeding from the barbed wire strung around her throat. Her hands were bound and her head slumped forward, as if she were close to death.

She had run out on a contract in Australia and been caught after returning to Thailand. This was her punishment. A photograph of her torture was meant to serve as a warning to other "contract" women. Only the traffickers know what happened to her afterwards. But other women in Thailand have met as horrible a fate.

Women who run out on their contracts are routinely brutalised - or murdered, says Natalie McCauley, an Australian who has worked in Thailand with non-government organisations that rescue women and children from brothels.

"The traffickers are barbaric. I have seen women with scars around the wrist and scars and burns on their upper body and torso. The women can't get away," says McCauley, who now works with the global organisation End Child Prostitution and Trafficking. "These people know who they are and where they live."

Yet authorities in Australia have done nothing to protect two Thai women who told Immigration officials all they knew about the gang of traffickers who had recruited them, raped them, forced them into prostitution and imprisoned them in a Sydney house. Tricked into coming to Australia with promises they could work as kitchen hands for $50 a day, more money than they could hope to earn in Thailand, the women naively agreed to pay off the $35,000 debt. They did not know they were to pay it off by having sex with hundreds of men and that when they resisted they would be warned they and their families would be harmed if they did not do as ordered.

"Don't think you can go anywhere from here. If you run away you'll die," one was warned. But after they escaped and agreed to talk to Immigration investigators, they spent months hiding out with friends, waiting for officials to do something. Their detailed statements gave the names and addresses of the traffickers in Bangkok and Sydney. They supplied photographs of the traffickers -- including a Sydney woman known as Joom and her sister Maneerat and brother-in-law Somsak -- as well as mobile phone numbers and the names of their associates, including a lawyer helping the traffickers to get work for the women by applying for refugee status. They were ready to go to court and give evidence. But no charges were laid.

Federal police were given the statements, photographs and contact details for the women. They did not lay charges. Nor did they call in the state police to act on the allegations of rape and deprivation of liberty, both state crimes. Immigration officials finally said they had no choice but to return them to Thailand. The women went last November, paying for their own airline tickets. Both are on the run, terrified and pleading for help.

Inquirer has managed to contact one through an intermediary. "Som", as we will call her, says she is still waiting to hear from the officials in Australia who promised to look after them. "We wait and wait and wait," Som says. She has lost touch with the other woman, who moved to a distant part of Thailand after running into one of the traffickers, a woman, by accident. That woman's name and photo -- which Inquirer has -- was given to federal police. Yet she remains free to travel between Sydney and Bangkok recruiting more women.

Inundated with threatening phone calls and messages for months after her return from Australia, Som still lives in fear. The traffickers will hurt or kill her if they find her, she says. She doesn't know where they will come from or what they will look like. She can't live a normal life -- and is too frightened to get a job with regular hours.

But her greatest fear is that the traffickers will hurt members of her family. They have vowed to do just that unless she pays off the contract -- the debt owed to the criminals who tricked her into coming to Australia. In fact the debt has grown. The traffickers claim that with "fines" and "interest" the original $35,000 she owed has grown to $58,000.

But such surreal logic typifies the whole twisted business. Most of the women trafficked to Australia realise they are to be involved in prostitution but know nothing of the brutal conditions. Bought and sold like cattle, they are installed in brothels for 12-hour shifts and forced to service customers even if they are sick. Some are not even given enough to eat while kept as prisoners.

"There were many times when there was no food in the house either and I would be very hungry," Som told Immigration.

Four years after the introduction of federal laws to combat slavery and sexual servitude, the Government finally appears to be cracking down on traffickers rather than their victims. In recent weeks eight people in Sydney and Melbourne have been charged.

Those arrested in Melbourne on charges of slavery were connected with Club 417, a Fitzroy brothel. Three of the women detained in the original raid on that brothel have returned to Thailand. Police are said to be in touch with them in case they are required as witnesses. Three are in hiding in this country with unspecified assistance from the federal police.

But police had to search for somewhere to hide them, temporarily installing them in a hotel because they did not have a safe house. This is typical of a system not set up to deal with the victims of sexual servitude, whether they are offering to give evidence or not.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward says this could be overcome by obtaining the help of human rights authorities in Australia and their home countries.

A recent report on trafficking from the federal parliamentary library suggests that the Government will have little success in prosecuting the criminals organising the trade unless it gives the victims of trafficking "mandated support, protection and means of redress". The present system provides none of these, according to the report, which identifies a more fundamental problem still. Because our immigration law commits the Government to deport people found in breach of visa conditions, "trafficking victims are detained in inappropriate conditions [and] put at risk of being returned to an unsafe environment".

Indeed, Australia signed the UN protocol to prevent trafficking but insisted on a caveat to ensure that its signature did not compromise government policies relating to the detention and removal of "illegal non-citizens".

Former federal policeman Brian Iselin says women need shelter, counselling and time to grieve over what has happened to them. Iselin, an expert on human trafficking, says in a recent paper on sex slavery in Australia that the victims must be given the right to stay here and that right should not be contingent on them helping with investigations. But the federal Government fears that claims of being trafficked for prostitution could become a backdoor way of getting into the country.

Many observers believe that one solution is a special visa for victims of trafficking. The US and some European countries have them. Without such a system in place, vulnerable women who flee from their captors remain in danger.

Take the case of "Sandi". Two days after the young Thai woman walked out of a brothel to meet members of the underground pipeline helping her escape, Sandi was phoned by a relative in Thailand. Inquirer was there to hear the call. The relative, who had been phoned by an associate of the traffickers, berated the distraught and tearful Sandi for not staying at the brothel to work off the debt.

It is difficult for anyone who isn't in the situation to imagine her fear and isolation. She was running out of a $35,000 contract not knowing what her bosses here or in Thailand would do about it. But what Sandi did know was that women like her disappear all the time. It was her boss in Thailand -- not her -- who had the police contacts.

To the traffickers, what is one contract girl more or less?