01 June 2022

A new study has exploded four common myths around human trafficking in Australia, debunking the perception that offenders are exclusively male, foreigners, unknown to their victims and use physical force to control them.

The stereotypes, perpetuated in the media, popular culture and by governments, couldn’t be further off the mark, according to University of South Australia anti-trafficking researchers Kyla Raby and Dr Nerida Chazal.

Citing international and Australian trafficking statistics in a journal article published in Anti-Trafficking Review, the UniSA researchers show that women play a key role in human trafficking, not just as victims, but offenders as well.

“Of 25 people convicted of human trafficking in Australia in 2021, 14 were men and 11 were women,” Raby says. “Some of those female offenders were leaders, some were former victims, and some were in relationships with male co-offenders.”

The popular narrative that most trafficking victims are unknown to their victims is also rejected.

Dr Chazal says women usually bond with male traffickers through a common background, language, friendship and nationality, where trust and often an intimate relationship is established from the outset.

“This trust is then exploited by traffickers using subtle, coercive, psychological control – not physical violence – to co-opt them into sex work and slavery.”

And while violence is part of this mix, physical force is not commonly used to recruit and control victims. Social, economic and geographical isolation are used instead.

The pervasive stereotype that human traffickers are foreign and carrying out their activities overseas, is also dismissed.

“The myth that trafficking is rooted in foreign cultures and international travel is perpetuated through American films and popular culture,” Raby says. “However, a report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2020 found that 74 per cent of convicted traffickers were citizens of the country where the offences took place.”

The researchers cite two recent cases in Australia, in 2021, involving sexual exploitation and allegations of slavery and servitude involving ‘home grown’ 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.

The other case related to a 40-year-old Australian man arrested and charged with keeping six women as sex slaves on a remote property in NSW.

“Despite numerous reports about the man over several years, and blogs and videos documenting his treatment of these women, neither the police nor the public recognised this situation as slavery,” Dr Chazal says.

“It took years for the man to be charged, mainly due to the stereotype around trafficking as a foreign or cross-border issue, and a lack of understanding of the central role that coercive control plays in facilitating trafficking.

“In both of these cases, psychological coercion was present, including allegations that offenders used substances to control victims and ensuring the women were completely dependent on the offender.”

The researchers say narrow stereotypes surrounding offenders can have dangerous implications and that authorities need to have a better understanding of coercive control in trafficking.

Notes for editors

For a copy of the paper, please email candy.gibson@unisa.edu.au

Kyla Raby is an anti-trafficking practitioner with the Australian Red Cross where she manages a support service for survivors of human trafficking. She is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia. Dr Nerida Chazal is a Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at the University of South Australia. Her research examines human trafficking, modern slavery and gender violence.

Media contact: Candy Gibson mobile: 0434 605 142 email: candy.gibson@unisa.edu.au

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