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RESPECT for Women seminar

Thursday 9 September 2004

Global Perspectives Panel

Presentation by Ms Georgina Costello, Melbourne Barrister

MS HO: Thank you. We are now going to hear from Georgina. You have on your table, behind the UNIFEM web site page, "Six Ways to Tackle Trafficking." Georgina has actually done some comparative work looking at how Australia compares with other countries in this very concerning area.

Thank you, Georgina.

MS COSTELLO: I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land, the Kaurna people. I am from Melbourne. I am from a mother, Susie Costello, who is a feminist social worker specialising in domestic violence and Aboriginal housing, among other things. My aunt Kate Costello, lives in Adelaide, and she is on numerous company boards. I come from feminist women, I am a feminist woman, and I am proud of my mother and my aunts for what they have taught me.

I have had the privilege of working with many migrant women in my work as a barrister and migration adviser. I have heard their stories. I will share three with you that I've heard or read in my work. Then I will suggest three things we need to do urgently that we need our Government and other parties to adopt, in my view, leading up to the election, and then I will talk briefly about international comparisons. I will be brief. I know you have heard a lot of talking today.

About 6 months ago I went to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre in Melbourne - and I met with a woman there who had been trafficked. This means that a woman is transported or recruited by use of force or threats or deception and taken to a place to be exploited. In Australia this often happens in the sex industry. Women are tricked or abducted across borders around the world and used in brothels where they are unpaid, where they are forced to have sex, either against their will or in unsafe ways.

So a few months ago I went through the razor wire at the Maribyrnong Detention Centre in Melbourne to meet with a woman who the Australian Federal Police had told me was a victim of trafficking. I sat down with her and I said, "I'm a lawyer, I'd like to help you, there may be some migration rights you have, there may be some visas you can access." And she said, "I don't want to talk to you, I don't want to speak to anybody. The way that people from the Government have spoken to me makes me feel dirty. They have called me a prostitute. I did that only because I was forced to. I don't want to speak to anybody else."

That woman remained there in Maribyrnong Detention Centre for several weeks, unwilling to speak to anybody else, unwilling to tell anyone her real name, because we blew it as a country when she came into contact with those who could have helped her. They didn't have the sensitivity or training or understanding to give her the help she needed. When dealing with victims of sexual violence, when dealing with women from migrant backgrounds, sensitivities and knowledge is necessary, without which, we can further traumatise women who have already suffered too much.

There is a woman in Melbourne who was trafficked from Eastern Europe to Italy for prostitution by Albanian mafia. She was repeatedly gang-raped, she was beaten all over her body, except her face, because she was pretty and they didn't want to ruin her face for the customers. She kept resisting and resisting and resisting. This woman had incredible spirit and incredible pride and she wouldn't submit to consenting to prostitution.

Eventually she escaped, and she gave evidence in a trial of the traffickers, leading to their conviction for several years. The traffickers went to gaol, and when they got out the first thing they did was go after her. They tracked down her family. They couldn't find her she had fled to another country in Europe. They tracked down her family, they attacked the house, they abducted a family member, they left note in her family’s house saying, "We're not finished yet”.

When this woman was telling her story of trafficking to an excellent colleague of mine in Melbourne, a lawyer at Legal Aid, the woman would continually go into dissociative states. My colleague said to her, "You are going to need to tell me what happened." She said the words, "There were four men," and then collapsed on the ground. Over several weeks, eventually she was able to tell her story.

This lawyer took her through the process of applying for a refugee visa. She failed in that application at the primary stage, because she did not fit the definition of refugee under law. She failed in her application for a review of that decision to the Refugee Review Tribunal, known as quite a hard-nosed tribunal, not a very sympathetic place, but the tribunal member wept during the hearing and the tribunal member said, "I'm sorry, but you don't fit the definition of refugee. I can't help you."

And she waited and waited and waited for months and months as her family back home in Eastern Europe lived in fear and she had suicidal thoughts until, fortunately for her, after much time, she was given a visa through the Minister for Immigration's personal non-reviewable, non-transparent discretion. So in her case Senator Vanstone did give her a visa, but it was a discretionary one. There is no visa for that woman, due to her characteristics, as of right.

The third thing I would share with you is that if you surf the net and read what men say about going to brothels, you will come across men talking about using women who are most likely trafficked. A group called CATW in the USA; they found a statement on the internet by a man who said, "I went to this brothel and I had sex with this girl. She had the knife marks of the Asian gang that owned her. Yeah, she was great."

This sense of entitlement to women's bodies, this impunity for men who go to brothels and knowingly or recklessly have sex with women who may have gone through much suffering to reach the place they are in, who may not actually be freely consenting to the sexual act, must be challenged and addressed.

I have written a six-point plan on trafficking. It sounds a bit political, but I suppose it is. I speak my truth on this issue. I do it mainly unpaid; occasionally I might get paid a small amount. I don't have my own personal gain. This is just my ideas from the work I've done with trafficked women from the research that I've done. This is the minimum we should expect from Australia. The government has made some improvements to trafficking law and policy, but there are some areas that must be further addressed.

There are four main areas that need change. The first is support services; the second is visas; the third is the ratification of the trafficking protocol; and finally, it is important that we address male behaviour in brothels and that we address the use and exploitation of trafficked women and other women (who aren't trafficked but also suffer violence) in brothels.

In terms of victim support, the first story that I told you about indicates how important it is to get victim support right. In Italy, there is a visa available to victims of trafficking, because they are victims of trafficking, because they have escaped exploitation, and it gives them 6 months residence rights. It is renewable. It gives them access to counselling, housing, employment, work rights. And it is given because of that victim's experiences. It is not given in exchange for testimony to nail the traffickers in court.

In Australia, apart from a 30-day bridging visa, which is available at the very start, trafficking victims cannot have a visa unless they have made - and these are the words in Migration Regulation 2.07AK and HA - "have made a significant contribution to an investigation into trafficking or a significant contribution to a prosecution of traffickers." They have to have already given that contribution before they can get a visa.

So what am I supposed to say when I'm taken to a hotel room or a place where a trafficking victim is hiding, and the trafficking victim says to me "Should I go forward to the authorities, what will happen to me?" I may as well say “UMMM”. I don't say this, but the trafficking visa that I've referred to is called class UM, which I think is essentially ironic. It is so hard to say what will happen to a trafficking victim, because the visas that are available are not for her as of right due to what she has suffered or for her own characteristics; they are about whether or not she has got useful information to our criminal justice system.

We know with rape victims, victims of sexual violence and victims of domestic violence how hard it is for women to stand up and pursue justice in courts. It is just as hard for victims of trafficking. Furthermore, they often have to stand up to organised crime, face cultural barriers, and to do so without any sense of a permanent right to stay in Australia. And without an appropriate victim support program in place, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect trafficking victims to testify against trafficers. It is not world's best practice, and we should be better.

The USA has had numerous successful prosecutions and convictions of traffickers. One important part of some of the prosecutions that have taken place in the USA is that the families of victims of trafficking who testify have been protected. In Australia it is very difficult for the victim of trafficking to obtain safety for their family members, which is often foremost in the woman's mind, "But what happens to my family back at home? If I testify in court I know the traffickers will hurt them." We know, as women, the threat to families would be a real obstacle to women testifying in court.

Trafficking of women is a problem that catches so many other issues that we are familiar with about women's rights, prostitution, migration rights and labour rights. It is the lack of women's migration rights that often push women to take these unsafe migration options with traffickers. It is often history of domestic violence or incest within families that leaves women to be vulnerable to be trafficked or to be sold by their families into trafficking. Women are over-represented in precarious forms of labour, which means that they are vulnerable to exploitation and they are ripe for deception about the kind of work options that may be available for them overseas when the traffickers tell them they can take them overseas for these opportunities. And women refugees are vulnerable to being abducted from refugee camps as well.

So trafficking is a way of seeing a range of important issues for women. It is an issue that is well recognised globally and an issue that Australia has been slow to recognise. Our Government still claims that we have, if anything, a very small problem of trafficking in Australia. There has been only limited research into the extent of the trafficking problem, but earlier this year Project Respect, who is the leading non-Government organisation working on this issue, did research and documented over 300 incidents of trafficking in Australia.

The Government last year announced a $20 million package on trafficking. Not one cent of that money has gone to Project Respect. Instead, it has gone to the Australian Federal Police and also to a private training organisation, Southern Edge Training Pty Ltd, who also offer baton and handcuff training who have had no experience, prior to this tender. of working with trafficking victims. It is not appropriate to only fund one NGO, nor is it appropriate to discount the incredible expertise and the experience and knowledge of a women's organisation that has been doing such great work for so long. Anyway, I will leave it there.

I think that there is a high level of motivation here at this conference. I hope that, as a group who have come together, who stand for something, who stand for decency and human rights, we can think concretely about some of the things we need to change in Australia. In trafficking, I think there are some clear ways that we can improve what we are doing in terms of victim support, in terms of visas and in terms of challenging male use of women's bodies. I hope that you will join me, as there aren't many of us working on this issue, and we need to stand together.

Thank you.

PANEL QUESTION 1: Georgina, my question is to you. I know you are working in Melbourne and there's been work done in Sydney, too, but Adelaide has a very prominent and well-known sex industry here. Is there any evidence that there are trafficked women working in the sex industry here in Adelaide?

MS COSTELLO: No, I've not found any cases of trafficking in Adelaide. I don't know whether that is because it is very well hidden or because it is not happening here. I'm afraid that I'm not able to identify any cases in Adelaide.

PANEL QUESTION 3: I was wondering, since we are talking about the trafficking of women, what about the trafficking of brides? I mean, lots of women come over here. It could be seen as a similar situation of false promises of marriages and relationships coming from Russia or Asia. If you are talking about abuse in terms of power and ownership of women, it seems to me - and I've heard a lot of anecdotal stories - that these women become very susceptible because they don't know the language, they don't have access to services, to being locked in homes or abused in some way. It is very difficult for them to assimilate. What protection for them?

MS COSTELLO: Absolutely. The issue of mail-order brides, as it is often termed, is part of trafficking. Australia has had numerous incidences of that from the Philippines in particular. At an intelligence level, I've seen cases of trafficking connected with agencies that set up those sort of marriages. So, yes, that is very important.

On a practical level, when women manage to escape those relationships, it can be difficult for them to be given good advice. It has happened that, you know, the fourth wife that that bloke has got over here and treated badly ends up getting deported like the other three were. So it is important that those women receive good legal migration advice and counselling and the support that they need in order to break the cycle, because if women with these gender inequities aren't helped here, it is not going to be any better when they go home. So we often see cycles of women who are trafficked again and again or go from one violent relationship to another, and we need a circuit breaker by way of the right kind of programs and legal rights available to women.

SENATOR WONG: Can I just add to that? It seems to me we have to have specific programs to tackle those issues. But let us try and take a step back and take a global perspective and say: what are the things that fuel both trafficking and mail-order brides? It is the continuing poverty and economic circumstances in those countries of origin. So my perspective has always been that our role as feminists in a developed country should always be to try and work to lift the educational and economic circumstances of women in other countries, because that is what fuels these problems.

MS COSTELLO: Absolutely. It is a really good point you make. And as has earlier been referred to, there is feminisation of poverty at the same time as there is a tightening of borders by desirable destination countries. The few visas that are left open to women, who often don't fit the skill visa categories because they are less able to access the education and training and jobs that they would need to get into those categories, are spouse visas and trafficking visas. Well, visas that traffickers arrange for them. So, yes, it has absolutely got to be seen as a continuum of what is going on in developing countries to push women and what is going on in developed countries to pull women, and both need to be addressed.

MS HO: I think I might have to end this part of our proceedings and perhaps ask Vicki whether she might come forward. I'm sorry that we haven't had quite as much time for questions as we hoped, but we do have this time over lunch, and perhaps if people would like to ask panellists directly a question that they have been unable to ask, please feel free to do that.

MS COSTELLO: Just while Vicki is coming forward, I would just like to reinforce what Penny said about the need for a gender-based visa. It is so important. There are so many women, not just in trafficking but in other areas, who can't access the protection that they need. So that is something we should be calling for as the election nears.

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