Tuesday May 6, 2003

David Fickling
Sydney dispatch

The southern slave trade

There is one group of illegal immigrants that Australia seems to welcome with open arms — those smuggled in by people-traffickers, writes David Fickling

You probably know the image by now. The detention centres, the razor-wire, the biased tribunals: Australia, once the lucky country, is now better recognised as the unfriendly island, always offering the cold shoulder to outsiders.

It's a picture which has become so widespread overseas that — according to one internal government report — tourists have already started spurning Australia for the seemingly more benevolent destination of New Zealand.

In a couple of areas, the image is surely unjust. If you look east Asian or — God forbid — Muslim, you will likely find yourself behind the wire if your papers are not in order. But if you're among the 10,000-odd visa overstayers in the country with a US or British passport, then you'll probably be treated to nothing worse than a stern talking-to.

There's one other group of illegal immigrants that the government seems happy to welcome with open arms. These are more of a special case. They come from places — South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, India, the Balkans — which are normally regarded with suspicion by Australian immigration authorities.

But hundreds of them get in each year, and despite the occasional crackdown there seems little public will to do anything more to tackle the problem.

What makes this last group unusual is that they are not — like the east Asians and Middle Easterners — looking to establish new lives away from their own oppressive regimes. Nor are they, like the westerners, out for a working holiday in a sun-kissed country. What makes this last group distinctive is that, to all intents and purposes, they are slaves.

They occupy an underworld of the Australian economy which is rarely noticed by the population at large. But occasionally a case brings their situation to light. Most recently, the inquest of Thai prostitute Phuangthong Simaplee has led to opposition calls for a government inquiry into the problem.

Phuangtong was brought up in a small village in northern Thailand's Chiang Mai province. Aged 12, she was sold into slavery by her family and smuggled into Australia on a Malaysian passport.

For 15 years, the money she earned from her work was spent mostly on the extortionate fees charged by her bosses and on remittances sent back to her family in Thailand. What little was left over from this she latterly came to spend on heroin. The addiction left her so wasted that when she died in Sydney's Villawood detention centre last September, choking on her own vomit in withdrawal from the drug, she weighed only 38kg.

She had been picked up three days earlier during a raid by the immigration department Dimia on the central Sydney brothel where she had been working. For Dimia, it was an open-and-shut case: she was in Australia without proper documentation, so the problem would be cleared up by her deportation via Villawood. Nothing more to worry about than that.

Project Respect, a group campaigning against sex trafficking in Australia, disagrees. It says that there are 1,000 other women in the country who are kept, like Phuangtong Simaplee, in conditions equivalent to slavery.

The federal police say they have launched 14 investigations into the situation, but so far not a single charge has been laid. A major factor in that difficulty in bringing charges is that the people most qualified to act as witnesses risk deportation if they come forward.

Phuangthong Simaplee's life in Sydney may have been grim, but back in Thailand — where prostitutes are occasionally kept chained to the beds where they work — it would probably have been even worse.

It is very hard to shake the impression that the government has made a conscious choice in this matter. One imperative facing them is the logic of the Tampa crisis and the detention regime, demanding the removal of all non-white illegal immigrants from Australian soil without delay.

The other demands clemency for sex workers in debt slavery, not just for the sake of their own rights but for the broader purpose of using their testimony to catch the smugglers who brought them there. Such clemency need not even extend to granting residency to the victims of the sex trade, since the government is able to provide special temporary visas to allow witnesses to testify.

Forced to choose between these two options, the government goes for the Tampa logic every time. Church and community groups who have tried to spring sex slaves from captivity say that the police are for the most part uninterested or actively discouraging. Despite opposition calls, the government will not be considering a judicial inquiry into the problem either — such an inquiry would be too expensive, officials say.

There are few things less credible than a government telling the public that it doesn't have the money for something. Governments can always find the cash for the pet projects they want to splash out on. Already the federal treasurer, Peter Costello, is softening up the Australian public for the expected hit of next week's "war budget".

Immigration itself is an even greater hoarder of government cash. Annual spending on Australia's refugee programme, pumped up by the vast cost of locking up asylum applicants in maximum-security camps, amounts to more than A$1bn (£393m) a year.

No, governments are always capable of finding the money to spend on things they are interested in. But while the arrival of refugees in leaky boats is considered a national crisis deserving of whatever funding is needed to address it, the more orderly influx of foreign workers kept in conditions bordering on slavery is not regarded as a such a problem.

Phuangthong Simaplee is not alone in this. Last October a South African labourer, Oagiles Malothane, had his leg crushed by rubble when a water tower he was working on in western New South Wales collapsed.

Within days he was spirited back to South Africa, despite the fact that doctors initially said he was still in need of more than a week's hospital treatment. South African high commission officials who interviewed him found that during nearly three months of 14-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week work, he had been paid just A$100 (£39).

Dimia angrily denied this, and, after words from Canberra officials, the high commission decided to button its mouth on the issue. Officials still held to the facts that they had established, but felt that the issue was politically too treacherous to keep talking about.

Then there are the hundreds of South Korean tilers working illegally in Australia for less than half the income of their legal counterparts. The racket has been going on for years, but the government's A$60m royal commission into illegal practices in the building industry has not considered it a subject worthy of study.

This is hardly surprising, as the commission is a politically-motivated exercise designed primarily to destroy the power of Australia's influential construction unions, but it is certainly a sign of how little energy officials are ready to expend on investigating known and well-documented instances of illegal work.

So why is nothing done in these cases? Certainly, the reticence about opening up official inquiries ought to be cause for suspicion. Australia's police forces are notorious for their involvement in organised crime, and their heroic reluctance to investigate relatively simple cases of people-trafficking stinks.

As one rights advocate pointed out, most smuggled prostitutes are advertised in the newspapers as "Thai girls" and "Filipino beauties" — they should not be hard to track down. Reports that people-traffickers have gained access to Dimia's computer files should also give pause for thought.

But why is this population of illegal immigrants viewed with an equanimity which would be entirely missing if they had arrived in boats?

Let us be charitable. Perhaps, just perhaps, someone might have recognised that — were it not for the cruel conditions under which they are living — a decent population of hard-working, committed immigrants might even be good for the country.

And without them, what would people do when they needed a bathroom tiled on the cheap, a shonky watertower built, or fancied screwing a heroin addict with the body of a child?

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Created: May 9, 2003
Last modified: May 9, 2003
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