Go to top of page

Trafficking in persons in Australia

Australia has a dedicated anti-trafficking response, underpinned by specific and related trafficking in persons legislation that is implemented by a range of government agencies and supported by an active non-government organisation sector. As in other countries, it is difficult to estimate the nature and extent of people trafficking to Australia each year; however, data from government agencies and NGOs provide some insight into the types of cases coming to the attention of authorities and service agencies.

Data collated by NGOs suggest that the number of people who may have experienced situations of trafficking in Australia is higher than that being detected through the government response. Between January 2008 and June 2009, the Salvation Army’s Samaritan Accommodation—a shelter for women who have experienced situations of people trafficking—provided services to 37 women, of whom 20 had contact with the AFP and/or the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and 11 participated in the Australian Government’s Support for Trafficked People program (Stanger 2009). Overall, however, there is no consensus on the scale of the people trafficking problem in Australia. Although the identification of trafficked persons is an issue worth noting here, the reluctance of victims to report to police for a range of reasons has been acknowledged (Putt 2007) and thus issues of underreporting, a problem for many types of crime, is not unexpected.

Despite the paucity of evidence about the nature and extent of people trafficking, sexual exploitation has been the focal point of responses to trafficking in Australia because the majority of identified victims have been females exploited for sexual purposes (see McSherry & Kneebone 2008; Schloenhardt et al. 2009).This has meant that research and other data have tended to focus on women trafficked for sexual purposes, leading to the view that sex trafficking is the predominant form of trafficking in Australia. This feature is not exclusive to the Australian situation.

Although each case that has been prosecuted in Australia to date has been unique and has not fitted general stereotypes about trafficking, traffickers and trafficked persons (Schloenhardt et al. 2009), this narrow focus has meant that ‘perceptions of what slavery and trafficking involve are not accurate … and fail to take account of other sometimes less severe and more nuanced forms of slavery and trafficking in persons’ (Cullen & McSherry 2009: 7).

Until recently, the issue of exploited migrant workers in non-sex sectors has been overlooked because of limited recognition that it could amount to trafficking in persons in circumstances established under Australian or international law. However, as more research is conducted into trafficking other than for sexual purposes, data are emerging to show that people are trafficked to Australia for a range of exploitative purposes outside of the sex industry, including for forced labour and debt bondage, domestic servitude and forced or servile marriage.

The Australian Government response

Concern about trafficking in persons for purposes other than sexual exploitation has been elevated within Australia over the past two years (Segrave 2009). In recognition of international trends, the Australian Government engaged actively with labour unions, peak employer bodies and industry to make trafficking for labour exploitation a priority issue in 2010 (APTIDC 2009). Over time this will be supported by improvements in knowledge and information on the issue; funding to develop advocacy and awareness-raising materials; improved coordination and a better standard of support services available to victims; resources to assist judges, prosecutors and jurors involved in trafficking cases (APTIDC 2009); and training and protocols for the various agencies involved in monitoring and regulating workplace conditions in Australia (APTIDC 2010).

Although Australian law relating to trafficking in persons, as set out in section 271.2 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, criminalises eight different scenarios, the emphasis on sexual exploitation may result in law enforcement bodies investigating the recruitment and provision of sexual services to the exclusion of other forms of trafficking (McSherry & Kneebone 2008).

Until recently, possible instances of trafficking in contexts other than the sex industry have generally been pursued under immigration and workplace legislation.

However, the most effective response to trafficking in persons within the criminal justice system considers the best interests of the victim—that is, a victim-centred criminal justice response would be most likely to achieve prosecutions, in addition to protecting and supporting the victim (UN.GIFT 2008). In the last monitoring period there was a shift towards this perspective, demonstrated by changes to Australian Government policy, visa schemes and the victim support program, as well as the increasing importance placed on the role of NGOs in assisting victims.

Changes to policy and programs

Under the original arrangements, the Support for Trafficked People program had three phases, and access was restricted to those holding a visa under the People Trafficking Visa Framework (visa framework). Changes to the operation of the program and to the visa framework, which came into effect on 1 July 2009 (see Figure 1), widened access to the program by ensuring that victims holding valid visas are not exempt from receiving support; by extending the recovery period so that victims have more time to assess their options (Attorney-General’s Department 2009); and by granting support to victims of trafficking who are unable to assist authorities in the investigation and/or prosecution process for reasons such as trauma.

In being allowed access to the program regardless of the type of visa they hold, victims of trafficking are no longer disadvantaged by having to request cancellation of valid visas to ensure continued support. The initial stage of the program, the Assessment Stream, has been extended from 30 days to up to 45 days for all suspected victims who hold a valid visa. If the suspected victim is in Australia unlawfully, they can be granted a Bridging F visa for up to 45 days.

This stream, is now also available to victims irrespective of their willingness and ability to assist with the investigation and prosecution of a people trafficking offence. Before 1 July 2009, suspected victims who were not able to give this assistance and could not satisfy the criteria for a valid visa were helped to return to their home country. Since then, an additional support stream, the Extended Intensive Support Stream, has been introduced, allowing for 90 days in all of assistance (45 days under the Assessment Stream and 45 days under the Extended Intensive Support Stream) to be given to suspected victims who are willing but unable to assist with the investigation and prosecution of a people-trafficking offence. The extended period of support, which will be provided on a case-by-case basis, is designed to provide additional assistance to suspected victims suffering from medical conditions such as trauma. If the suspected victim does not hold a valid visa, a second Bridging F visa for up to 45 days may be granted.

Figure 1: Changes to the operation of the Support for Trafficked People program and visa framework

 figure 1

Other changes are:

  • a 20-day transition period for victims of trafficking leaving the program, an arrangement that formalises the provision of transitional assistance, which was previously on a more informal basis;
  • removal of the Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Temporary) visa, which reduces the pathway to the Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) visa by at least two years and enables immediate family members, both inside and outside Australia, to be included in the application; and
  • lowering of the threshold for receiving a Witness Protection (Trafficking) Certificate from having made a ‘significant contribution’ to making a ‘contribution’ to an investigation or prosecution.

Australian anti-trafficking NGOs

A number of non-government organisations in Australia play a key role in protecting and assisting victims of people trafficking. These organisations support, rehabilitate and provide a range of services to people who have been trafficked. They also contribute their knowledge and experience, act as advocates and raise awareness of the issue. They include, but are not limited to, the Red Cross, the Anti-Slavery Project, Samaritan Accommodation, Scarlet Alliance, Project Respect and Australian Catholic Religious against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH).

Although only a small number of NGOs provide specialist support for victims of trafficking, they contribute fundamentally to Australia’s response. The Australian Red Cross is currently contracted to administer the federally funded Support for Trafficked People program in partnership with the Office for Women. Other NGOs complement the support provided under the program and allow victims to seek alternative assistance if they choose not to participate in, or are ineligible for, or no longer receive support through, the program.

In 2008 the then Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Bob Debus MP, convened the first National Roundtable on People Trafficking to strengthen Australia’s response through a partnership between the Australian Government and NGOs. In June 2009 his successor, the Hon. Brendan O’Connor MP, convened the second meeting of the roundtable. The roundtable is an ongoing mechanism for consultation and the development of policy on trafficking issues. It also aims to foster collaboration, information-sharing and open discussion between government and non-government agencies on current and emerging issues.

Government data on people trafficking in Australia

As is the case for most crimes, the exact figure for trafficking of persons into Australia is impossible to identify; however, data from government agencies involved in responding to trafficking in persons indicate its extent and nature.

Trafficking visas granted

Between 1 January 2004 and 30 June 2009, DIAC granted 142 Bridging F (subclass 60) visas, 102 Criminal Justice Stay visas (Part 2, Division 4 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth)), 17 Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Temporary) (subclass 787) visas, and five Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) (subclass 852) visas to suspected victims of trafficking. Three of the Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) visas were granted to immediate family members of the suspected victims.

Between 1 July 2009 and 30 June 2011, 57 Bridging F visas and 52 Criminal Justice Stay visas were granted to suspected victims of trafficking and their immediate family members, while 43 victims and 20 of their immediate family members were granted Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) visas.

The increase in the number of Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) visas granted in the most recent financial year is due largely to the removal of the temporary visa option, shortening the way to a permanent visa (Australian Government 2011). A breakdown by financial year is available in Table 1.

Table 1: Trafficking visas granted 2003–04 to 2010–11 (n)
Visa type03/0404/0505/0606/0707/0808/0909/1010/11
Bridging F visas 11 31 11 16 34 39 33 24
Criminal Justice Stay visas 5 23 8 18 18 30 23 29
Witness Protection (Temp.) visas 0 0 0 4 13 0 N.A N.A.
Witness Protection (Perm.) visas 0 0 0 0 0 5 21 42

Note: The number of visas cited includes those granted to both suspected victims of trafficking and their immediate family members. For the Bridging F and Criminal Justice Stay visas only, the number granted reflects the ability to grant such visas more than once to the same person. The Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Temporary) visa was removed in 30 June 2009.

Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship

Investigations and assessments

Between July 2004 and June 2011, the AFP conducted over 305 investigations of trafficking-related offences. Between 2007–08 and 2009–10 the number of investigations increased from 17 to 38 (see Figure 2). This fell to 35 in 2010–11. The majority (approximately 68%) of investigations over this period related to trafficking for sexual exploitation (APTIDC 2011).

In March 2011, the AFP began investigating Australia’s first case of organ trafficking (AFP, personal communication June 2011).

Figure 2: AFP investigations and assessments of people trafficking

 figure 2

Note: a breakdown by financial year is not available prior to 2004–05. A total of 79 investigations and assessments were undertaken by the AFP between 1999–2000 and 2004–05. An average over the five-year period is presented in the figure. The number of investigations and assessments in 2008–09 is not available due to a change in operational practices relating to the recording of trafficking incidents. A full trend line has been provided for visual purposes only and does not represent actual data.

Source: AFP

Support for Trafficked People program

Between 2004, when the program began, and 30 June 2011, 184 suspected victims of trafficking were referred by the AFP and received support and assistance while assisting in an investigation.

The majority of total program clients were female (90%, n=165). The 19 men supported through the program were in all cases involved in exploitation in non–sex labour industries. In contrast, the majority of women (90%, n=149) were trafficked for exploitation in the sex industry. The pattern is the same for 2009–11 (see Table 2). Four young people aged between 15 and 17 years at the time of referral, were referred to the program between January 2009 and June 2011 as suspected victims of people trafficking. As has been the case in previous years, the majority of clients in 2009–10 and 2010–11 were identified in New South Wales and Victoria (Table 3).

Table 2: Clients on program by type of exploitation and sex
Non-sexual exploitationaSexual exploitationTotal
Male 3 9 0 0 3 9
Female 7 8 55 63 62 71
Total 10 17 55 63 65 80

a: Non-sexual exploitation includes all other forms of exploitation and trafficking that occurs outside the sex industry, including labour trafficking, slavery, domestic servitude and organ trafficking

Source: Office for Women, June 2011

Table 3: Clients on program by state of locationa
MaleFemaleTotal Male Female Total
NSW 40 41 9 53 62
VIC 15 17 13 13
Otherb 7 7 5 5
Total 3 62 65 9 71 80

a: State of location refers to the state or territory where the client is initially identified and referred to the Support for Victims of People Trafficking Program

b: Includes Qld, SA, NT, WA, Tas and ACT

Source: Office for Women, June 2011

Most cases of people trafficking detected in Australia involved young women from Thailand, although smaller numbers came from South Korea, Indonesia, China, India and the Philippines (Joudo Larsen et al. 2009). As in previous years, clients supported through the program in 2010–11 mostly came from southeast Asian countries. More than one in three individuals who received support during this time were from Thailand (n=32), a further 17 were from Malaysia and nine were from the Philippines (Table 4). Before 2010–11 only one client from the Philippines had previously been on the program.

Table 4: Clients on program by country of origin/citizenship
Country of Origin/Citizenship2009–102010–11Total since 2004
Thailand 31 32 78
Malaysia 16 17 32
South Korea 9 7 31
Philippines a 9 10
Otherb 9 15 33
Total 65 80 184

a: Number included in ‘Other’ category as there were <5 clients

b: Includes all countries with <5 clients in any given financial year

Source: Office for Women, June 2011

Between 2005–06 and 2010–11, the number of clients on the program steadily increased, from 41 to 80 (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Number of clients on the program, 2005–11

 figure 3

Source: Office for Women, June 2011

Prosecution of trafficking in persons

As at 30 June 2011, 33 people had been charged with trafficking-related offences. These cases include:

  • 13 convictions (Wei Tang, ‘DS’, Zoltan Kovacs, Namthip Netthip, Kanokporn Tanuchit, Trevor McIvor, Melita Kovacs, Somsri Yotchomchin, Johan Sieders, Keith Dobie, Sarisa Leech, Kam Tin Ho and Ho Kim Ho); and
  • matters against 15 defendants that were finalised without resulting in a conviction.

As at 30 June 2011, there were four defendants facing charges before the courts.

Successful prosecutions are difficult to secure for a range of reasons, most relating to the suspected victim, who is often the key witness. Many victims do not wish to testify out of fear of the traffickers and/or the shame of publicising their exploitation to their families or communities. Often their credibility is attacked on the basis of prior inconsistent statements, and their motives for claiming to be a victim are questioned.

Further, the defence counsel may draw on previous illegal or immoral behaviour of the witness or victim in an attempt to discredit them. In at least one Australian case, the defence has attempted to draw on stereotypes of migrant sex workers, challenging the victim’s character and claiming that she fabricated her story (David 2008a). The cases are also particularly complex due to the international nature of the offences and the fact that each case prosecuted to date has been unique (David 2008b). Most of the matters that have been discontinued were unable to proceed because there was insufficient evidence to support a prosecution.

The majority of matters since January 2004 have been dealt with under section 270 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which covers slavery, sexual servitude and deceptive recruiting. Nine of the 13 defendants were convicted of slavery offences, three of sexual servitude and one of people trafficking.

Defendants were male and female ranging in age from mid-20s to 60, with the majority aged over 40. A large proportion of those convicted were brothel owners and managers. Developing better information regarding trafficking offenders is the focus of a current AIC project.

Box 5: People trafficking and the organ trade

Trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal is a growing international problem and sits uneasily within the normal trafficking in persons framework. The global demand for transplantable organs continues to increase with the development of modern transplantation procedures and immunosuppressant drugs (Scheper-Hughes 2005). The organ most commonly procured illegally is the kidney, as it can be retrieved from living donors. As awareness of trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal (TPOR) has increased, so has the number of declarations by international bodies and domestic laws condemning and criminalising such acts.

Significantly TPOR was included in the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Trafficking Protocol). However, prosecutions for TPOR continue to be very low (Meyer 2006). This is caused by a number of interrelated factors, including the low reporting of crimes by victims who fear prosecution themselves, variances in domestic legislation and the complex transnational nature of the crime.


Although the number of trafficked persons detected in Australia by DIAC and law enforcement authorities is relatively small, much can be learned from these cases, including the characteristics of victims and offenders and the nature of the trafficking process itself. With Australia’s evolving response to trafficking, enhanced information systems will help identify trends and emerging issues. In turn, this developing body of knowledge will provide insight for more targeted and better informed anti-trafficking approaches.

A key component of the AIC research program involves monitoring data from a range of sources. The program will continue to explore opportunities to improve understanding of the nature and extent of trafficking in persons in Australia and the region.

Last updated
3 November 2017