Hollywood movies tend to depict evil human traffickers as dastardly foreign men with big moustaches who kidnap or use unscrupulous trickery to lure unsuspecting women into a sordid life of sex slavery in far-off lands. However, a new study has exploded those common myths of human trafficking in Australia.

Women often play leading role in human trafficking

A study by the University of South Australia examined international and Australian trafficking statistics and found women often play a leading role in human trafficking gangs. (Please see The Myth of the 'Ideal Offender': Challenging persistent human trafficking stereotypes through emerging Australia cases, Anti-Trafficking Review, 2022.)

"Of 25 people convicted of human trafficking in Australia in 2021, 14 were men and 11 were women," said researcher Kyla Raby.

"Some of those female offenders were leaders, some were former victims, and some were in relationships with male co-offenders."

How victims are lured into human trafficking

Female victims are usually not grabbed off the street by men who force them into slavery.

The women usually know the male traffickers through a common background, language, friendship and nationality, where trust and often an intimate relationship are established from the outset.

That trust is exploited by the traffickers using psychological or coercive control, rather than physical violence to co-opt the women into sex work and slavery.

The study found that while sometimes there is violence, most of the victims were controlled by social, economic and geographic isolation.

Human trafficking offenders are not usually foreigners

A United Nations study found 74 per cent of convicted human traffickers were citizens of the country where they were convicted.

Two recent cases in Australia of slavery involved locally-based male and female offenders.

One case involved a 35-year-old man and two 23-year-old women - all white, Australian citizens - charged with multiple offences relating to a sexual slavery ring. Stupefying drugs were used to control the victims' living, financial and work conditions.

In another case, after a five week trial in NSW a 57-year-old woman was jailed for eight years for possessing a slave. She persuaded two Thai women to come to Australia to do sex work, but on their arrival confiscated their passports and told them they had to repay a $45,000 debt. (Please see Prosecuting an 'insidious trade' - Woman who helped force Thai women into sex slavery jailed, CDPP, 2019.)

Even though there were no metal bars holding the two women, the judge said the woman had effectively kept the Thai women in a prison with no way to escape.

What is slavery?

At the core of the trial was the legal definition of slavery. Even the jury asked for a definition.

Judge Nanette Williams told the jury the law defines slavery as "the condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised, including where such a condition results from a debt or a contract made by the person."

It is important to explode the Hollywood image of sex slavery, so that real traffickers can be more easily identified and prosecuted.

Further reading on slavery and human trafficking

Modern slavery - what can be done?

Australians charged with modern-day slavery and jailed

Response to modern slavery law disappointing, report finds

Anneka Frayne
Criminal law
Stacks Law Firm

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