Illegal brothels targeted in Canberra as police express concern for trafficked workers
Police are concerned about the health and wellbeing of vulnerable foreign workers being exploited in illegal brothels in Canberra, as they crackdown on the “disgusting” businesses.
- Police and border force officials raid 10 illegal brothels in Canberra since July
- Authorities say there is an uptick in the number of businesses due to an “opportunity” in suburban Canberra
- There are concerns for the health and wellbeing of the workers, usually trafficked from South-East Asia
A senior detective said ACT Policing’s sexual assault team was working with the Australian Border Force to “actively pursue” more underground operations, after charging four people linked to the raids of 10 illegal brothels since July.
Detective Superintendent Scott Moller said the past six months had seen an uptick in arrests and raids.
“There has been an increase, definitely,” he said.
“I think there’s an opportunity in Canberra to have these businesses.
“But I think as long as the enforcement side of the industry continues as it is, we will see a decline.”
He said the illegal brothels were usually found in revolting states, given they were not subject to health and safety checks.
A dirty bedroom of an illegal brothel police shut down in Reid in central Canberra. (Supplied: ACT Policing)
Police footage recorded during raids last year showed they were often housed in unhygienic, dirty and mouldy buildings.
“They’re disgusting,” Detective Moller said.
This was just one of many concerns he held for the workers — women aged between 23 and 65 who were mostly trafficked from South-East Asia.
“My biggest concern is for the women that have been exploited; their health, their wellbeing,” Detective Moller said.
“We are finding that the women are [trafficked] here and they’re part of a trend that organised crime is using to exploit vulnerable women.”
Psychological torture and endless debt
A beside table inside an illegal brothel shut down by ACT Policing in November. (Supplied: ACT Policing)
Detective Moller said the victims were commonly recruited through a debt-bondage scheme, where traffickers demanded work to repay a real or fake debt that many victims could never repay — causing a damaging cycle of psychological cruelty.
In many cases, women believed they were travelling to Australia to work as a maid or waitress before being forced into the sex industry and having their passports taken by traffickers.
Detective Moller said this was incredibly difficult situation for the victims, who found themselves enslaved in a country with an unfamiliar language and culture.
“They’re here and many don’t speak English and they’re vulnerable, and in a lot of cases the only option is to engage in prostitution,” he said.
“Plus, just from a perspective of investigating it, they’re tragic circumstances. You’re trying to help these women and a lot of the time they’ve still got this debt they carry no matter what.
“They’re scared to talk or cooperate with police.”
While ACT Policing did not investigate their wages, he said it was clear they were being paid “substantially less” than legal sex workers.
And their struggles rarely ended when the businesses were shut down and ringleaders were prosecuted.
Police connect women up with support and rehabilitation services such as the Sex Workers Outreach Program, the Australian Red Cross’ victim trafficking support and Supportlink, which Detective Moller said was to “make sure they don’t fall through the cracks” when they ended up on the streets.
The services provide help such as medical and psychological support, housing and legal aid.
But access to certain programs depended on whether a victim would give evidence to police, including potentially being a witness in court — and many women either did not understand the legal process or were afraid to engage in it.
Clients bolstering the exploitation of vulnerable women
Detective Moller was concerned the complicity of clients was feeding these illegal businesses, which often moved between buildings and suburbs.
“Whether their clients are completely aware that it’s an illegal operation or not, I can’t be sure, but I will say that the state that a lot of these brothels are in would lead you to believe straight away that it’s not a business that’s being checked regularly,” he said.
“It’s perpetuating the offence.
“As long as there’s clients out there, as long as men are engaging in these services, they’re exploiting these women — these vulnerable members of our community.”
Fortunately, he said there were also helpful members of the public, who had proven “absolutely crucial” to recent arrests made under joint investigations with local and federal authorities.
Most illegal brothels are found in apartment complexes, while some others are found in massage parlours. (Supplied: ACT Policing)
Three illegal brothels uncovered at the Argyle Apartments in Reid in September were the result of public tip-off.
In November, a 65-year-old woman was arrested and charged with operating a commercial brothel in a Kingston apartment block, again the result of information received from the public.
Detective Moller said it was clear the ringleaders of the businesses shut down recently knew of each other.
“Certainly they would have a knowledge. Whether that actually translates to a particular organised link, I haven’t been able to determine that yet,” he said.
He called on the public to keep lending their eyes and ears.
“Certainly I’d imagine there’s more,” he said.
He asked Canberrans to contact police if they noticed an unusually high number of people — mainly men — coming and going from nearby apartment blocks at strange hours.
He said another giveaway was a sudden rise in traffic, as many of the portable businesses were “there one day and gone the next”.
“For me any illegal brothel operating in Canberra is significant,” he said.
“But we’ve found quite a few, so it’s an issue we are looking into … we won’t stop.”
Raids can make things worse for sex workers: union
An illegal brothel ACT Policing shut down in Kingston in November was found to be unhygienic and filthy. (Supplied: ACT Policing)
Jules Kim from the national sex worker’s union, The Scarlet Alliance, doubted that human sex trafficking was as widespread in Canberra and Australia as police claimed.
The chief executive noted a 2017 federal government inquiry that found no sex workers were tricked into the job out of the 14 sex-work-related trafficking convictions nationally since 2004.
“What they were subject to were labour violations or to unfair debt or what they had agreed to had changed,” Ms Kim said.
“But they were not deceived as to the fact they would be sex working and many had been sex working previously in their home countries.”
Ms Kim said that despite this, there was “a continued focus on framing issues” in the sex industry, particularly those involving South-East Asia migrants, as trafficking.
“This creates issues in addressing actual work health and safety … issues,” she said.
“What we are seeing now with an increase in police raids in the sex industry has been proven to create worse conditions for sex workers, resulting in poorer occupation health and safety and barriers to accessing police in the event of a crime.”
Ms Kim said the “illegal brothels” police referred to were often situations where more than one worker was working from a premises in order to share costs — which is illegal in some states and territories, including the ACT.
She said full decriminalisation of sex work was proven as the best way to ensure a safe environment, especially for those being exploited.
Timeline of recent illegal brothel raids in Canberra
July 23, 2018
Authorities raid five brothels across two premises in Fyshwick in Canberra’s south, leading to the detaining of five Thai nationals over immigration charges. Police claim one premises was found in a state of disrepair.
September 4, 2018
Police uncover three illegal brothels at the Argyle apartments in central Canberra. ACT Policing footage shows mouldy bathrooms and dirty kitchens. One man and three women were found to be working illegally.
September 11, 2018
Police raid an illegal brothel in Mort Street in Braddon after receiving a tip-off from a sex worker during the Reid raids.
November 30, 2018
A 65-year-old woman is arrested and charged with operating a commercial brothel in a Kingston apartment block. Police investigate the immigration status of two more women.