The police vice squad has stepped up its investigations into possible human trafficking cases, despite the fact that people were still under-reporting out of fear.
Police Inspector Joseph Busuttil, who is tasked with investigating human trafficking cases, said there were pending cases in court which were nearing conclusion. He said there was a perception that convictions had dropped but this was because of a change in the laws, which made the punishments harsher.
“What happened was that those charged with trafficking people into Malta used to plead guilty and get a suspended sentence. However, the law was changed and harsher penalties introduced. This has resulted in those accused battling it out in court, and in recent years we have not had a conviction – yet,” he said.
Inspector Busuttil was speaking at a conference ‘Combating Human Trafficking Today’ on Friday.
During the conference, law makers were urged to stop the prosecution of sex workers and instead target pimps and those paying for sex.
Calls were made for Parliament to protect women involved in prostitution when discussions on legal reforms affecting the sector were held. The government has said that it was open to reforming existing prostitution laws, although it has not said what form the revisions should take.
While some advocated the criminalisation of clients and pimps, others believe banning the purchase of sex placed sex workers in even more danger.
Laws to regulate gentlemen’s clubs
UK journalist Julie Bindel, who has recently published a book on the subject, told those present at the conference of the “disasters” where the industry had been completely legalised.
Sounding a warning to Maltese law makers, Ms Bindel recounted her experiences documenting the sector in countries such as New Zealand that had legalised the sex trade. Rape and murder statistics, she said, were showing worrying trends in countries that had completely legalised the sector.
Worse still, she said, these crimes were treated as occupational hazards for sex workers, while abuse by pimps and human traffickers were simply breaches of contract.
“The inside of a woman’s body can never be considered a work place. And the crimes that prostitutes suffer should not be normalised and treated like a simple work place injury,” Ms Bindel said.
Instead, she urged Malta to adopt what is known as the Nordic model approach to prostitution, which decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes paying people for sex a criminal offence.
The approach, which has been widely acclaimed as the most successful, aims to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.
Reforms Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli said the government was keen on addressing the issue, however, models that had been introduced abroad did not necessarily fit the context.
Ms Farrugia Portelli said the mushrooming of massage parlours used as brothels, and gentleman’s clubs that were often tied to human trafficking, showed there was a need to shake up the law.
Earlier in September, Madam Justice Edwina Grima stressed the need for laws to regulate gentlemen’s clubs in a society that, she said, was becoming “increasingly permissive”
Lara Dimitrijevic, a gender equality advocate said that gentlemen’s clubs “glamorise prostitution” and should be closed.
The Tourism Ministry had also said, in August 2017, that it was considering rules for gentlemen’s clubs which would, among other things, determine whether entertainers could perform naked, semi-naked or clothed.
Anna Borg, the director of the Centre for Labour Studies, told the conference that the cases in court, although alarming, were surely just the tip of the iceberg.