The Australian government has announced a four-year, $20 million initiative to fight human trafficking, particularly to address the problem of women trafficked for sex work.
Estimates of the number of people trafficked into Australia are not available. Typically they arrive legally, but later join the 60,000 individuals who annually become illegal by overstaying the duration of their visa.
The new measures mark a shift in policy for Australia, which for three decades has focused on "boat people" — asylum seekers whose vessels have brought them to Australian shores in numbers estimated at 13,540 between 1989 and April 2003.
The initiative was unveiled on October 13 by Minister for Justice and Customs Senator Chris Ellison on behalf of his colleagues, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Senator Amanda Vanstone, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, Attorney General Philip Ruddock, and Senator Kay Patterson, the minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women. This unusually wide-ranging ministerial involvement in migration matters reflects the degree to which trafficking links concerns about human rights abuses with those about a growing form of transnational organized crime.
The government plan, which combines elements of control, support for victims of trafficking, public education, and legislative measures, was welcomed by the Government's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. From the perspective of domestic politics, the issue of trafficking provides an opportunity for rapprochement between the government and human rights groups who have been at odds over the treatment of boat people and asylum seekers.
As part of the package, a new 23-member Australian Federal Police team will be established to investigate trafficking, and a senior migration officer will be appointed to Thailand, a major source of women trafficked into Australia. Support services will be developed for victims of trafficking, including those who will be kept in detention and for those returned to source countries in Southeast Asia.
The plan also calls for the development of more effective legislation to deal with trafficking, and offers a government commitment, once domestic political requirements are met, to ratify the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children.
One factor underlying the attention to human trafficking is undoubtedly the media spotlight on the detention of female trafficking victims, including the death at the Villawood Immigration Detention Center of a young woman who had allegedly been brought to Australia as a 12-year-old for commercial sex work. Lobbying by women's groups outraged by this and other incidents played a key role in putting the issue on the political agenda.
The announcement preceded an October conference on the trafficking of women for commercial sex work (which is not illegal in and of itself in Australia) held in Melbourne. One of the groups organizing the conference, Project Respect, estimates that up to 1,000 women have been trafficked in Australia.
The close links between traffickers and criminal organizations undoubtedly played a part in the timing of the government's interest in this issue, which is not a new one. Tourist visas have been widely used for a long time to bring women into Australia for commercial sex work. The government's interest in trafficking also comes at a time of heightened concern about security and terrorism, given the potentially close links between criminal and terrorist groups. Indeed, in announcing the initiative, the government explicitly noted that it would be pursuing region-wide cooperation on the issue through the networks established as part of the Bali Regional Ministerial conferences on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.
The announcement of the policy initiative coincided with a ministerial restructuring involving the appointment of longstanding immigration minister Philip Ruddock to the more senior ministerial position of attorney general. However, Ruddock will continue to be closely involved in this area. The work on the policy initiative began before his replacement by Senator Amanda Vanstone. Also, as attorney general, Ruddock will be closely involved in the implementation of the trafficking initiatives, as well as in several immigration and asylum cases that are being now being contested in the High Court (see related article).