Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock recently announced that the federal government is committed to combating the crime of trafficking for sexual slavery, where women are brought to Australia against their will and used as sex slaves. The minister’s comments were long on rhetoric and short on practical details and commitment. It seems the minister is more concerned with damage control, following public horror at revelations that there are trafficked women in Australia.
Trafficking for sexual slavery is a serious crime against humanity. The government’s commitment to addressing this human rights disaster is a good first step, but until concrete measures are introduced to protect and assist the victims of trafficking and to prosecute those responsible, there is little cause for excitement at the minister’s announcement.
In April this year, the New South Wales Deputy State Coroner, Carl Milovanovich, handed down his findings in relation to the inquest into the death of a trafficked woman in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. The Coroner’s case showed that despite Ms Puongtong Simaplee revealing to a Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) Compliance Officer that she was the victim of sexual slavery, she was incarcerated in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, where she died three days later as a result of heroin withdrawal and medical mismanagement. The Coroner found that aspects of the medical treatment of Ms Simaplee were inadequate, inappropriate and below the standard expected.
Both DIMIA and Australasian Correctional Management (ACM)—who operate Australia’s detention centres—failed Ms Simaplee. There are obvious and simple measures that should have been taken to assist and protect her. Until the government and its private detention centre operators take such measures to assist trafficked women, any claims to be addressing the issue are hollow.
Appropriate treatment of the victims of trafficking includes putting them in touch with agencies that have expertise about the needs of trafficked women and providing them with lawyers who can advise them of their rights. In addition, both DIMIA and ACM staff should be trained specifically to identify trafficking issues and to respond appropriately when someone reveals they have been trafficked. Trafficked women suffer from complex psychological and health issues that require careful and informed treatment.
Bridging visas need to be available to victims of trafficking so that these victims are not kept in detention centres, where experiences of powerlessness and abuse can only be exacerbated. The policy and conditions of mandatory detention contributed to Ms Simaplee’s death and threaten the lives of many other trafficked women. It needs to be easier for those who allege they have been trafficked to obtain criminal justice visas and witness protection, so that they can safely remain in Australia at least for the time it takes the federal police to investigate their stories.
Brothels should be scrutinised by state and federal police so that the crime rings behind people-trafficking are eradicated and illegal brothels are shut down. The Commonwealth legislation that makes trafficking a crime should be strengthened in order to prosecute traffickers. Organisations that have worked to establish access to imprisoned sex workers need better funding, so they can assist more women to escape.
It will be interesting to see exactly how the government plans to address trafficking for sexual slavery. After considering the evidence about Ms Simaplee’s death, Coroner Carl Milovanovich recommended that DIMIA and ACM should consider working with other organisations to provide appropriate medical, community and translator services to women who have been identified as possible victims of trafficking. The UN Trafficking Protocol (to which Australia is a signatory) requires the government to take measures to protect victims of trafficking. The tragic death of Ms Simaplee demonstrates what can happen when such obligations are neglected.
Minister Ruddock frequently refers to his commitment to the human rights principles embedded in the philosophy of Amnesty International. Here is an opportunity to display this commitment.
Georgina Costello is a Melbourne-based lawyer and a fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan public policy thinktank.