Tue, May 27, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Death sparks call to end Australian sex-slavery crimes

REUTERS , SYDNEY

When Puongtong Simaplee choked to death on her vomit, it ended 15 torturous years in Australia, first as a child sex slave and later as a heroin-addicted prostitute.

Puongtong died malnourished, weighing a mere 31kg, but her lonely death in a Sydney detention center in 2001 sparked neither newspaper headlines nor outrage from politicians.

Only a small circle of friends, the pimps who trafficked her and drug dealers who supplied her heroin had ever heard of the 27-year-old Thai woman.

That was until April when a coroner delivered a verdict on her death and called for the authorities to use whatever means necessary to eradicate the trafficking of sex slaves.

The conservative government introduced laws against sexual slavery in 1998, but nobody has ever been charged under them.

Police have investigated 19 cases, but there has never been enough evidence to prosecute.

"We believe there can be up to 1,000 women at any one time under contract," said Kathleen Maltzahn from Project Respect, which represents women brought to Australia as sex slaves.

Brothel sources say sex slaves or "contract girls" are Thai, Chinese, Filipino, Korean or Indonesian. Most are aged from 18 to their early 20s. Some are as young as 12.

Sources say the women must pay off A$30,000 to A$50,000 (US$19,500 to US$32,500) debt contracts to traffickers, which can take two to six months and mean servicing 800 to 1,000 men.

Campaigners say the government has lost the political will to tackle the problem after winning the last election in 2001 on a tough stance on illegal immigration.

Immigration officials are too keen to deport women found without visas, they add.

Welfare lawyer Chris Joyce has helped 30 women escape from brothels in Sydney, Canberra and Perth. Some, he says, were ready to testify but were deported.

Jenny (not her real name) has worked for years as a receptionist in brothels, at times helping sex slaves escape. She says girls are locked up in brothels or safe houses. Those who refuse to be prostitutes are raped and beaten. They cannot refuse a client or unsafe sex.

Those who prove troublesome are forced to take heroin, becoming dependent on their pimps.

Jenny says Laotian, Malay-Chinese, Chinese and Korean gangs dominate trafficking, but there are also "ma and pa" operators who buy two or three "contract girls" and operate a small brothel or get a manager to run their girls.

Since 1998, brothel owners no longer bring women into Australia, says Jenny, but use traffickers who sell women, usually for around A$16,000. This protects brothel owners from trafficking charges.

Jenny says traffickers bring women in on tourist visas, then apply for refugee protection visas, allowing them to stay six to 12 months during the appeal process. By then they have paid off their contracts and traffickers are happy to get rid of them.

"As soon as they pay off their debt they are turned over to immigration and new stock comes in," Jenny said.

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