Maltese police: most sex workers are not trafficking victims

Local police screen sex workers for trafficking and treat them as victims -- until proven otherwise.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Malta
Maltese police: most sex workers are not trafficking victims - NewsMavens
Maltese Police, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

In the interview below, Maltese police inspector John Spiteri explains that the Maltese police closely follow the recommendations of anti-trafficking advocates when raiding brothels. He explains that the police do not conduct raids to punish desperate women.

Rather, officers treat them as victims and work to arrest their abusers -- but they then face a barrier when victims themselves tell them that they knew what they were getting themselves into, and came to Malta to make money from prostitution.

According to the US Department of State's 2017 report on human trafficking, 30 foreign nationals were identified as victims of human trafficking in Malta. They received medical care, employment services, counseling, and additional emergency shelters. Foreign victims who decided to assist police in their investigations were entitled to a renewable six-month temporary residence permit, police protection, legal assistance, and the right to work. Thus, if they wished, they could continue working in Malta -- but not in prostitution.

Should we trust that trafficking is negligible and women in brothels have made a conscious choice? The US Department of State report states that no one has been convicted of trafficking since 2012. For this and other reasons, the Government of Malta does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but officer training and funding raises are underway.

In 2017, the report continues, "The government initiated the prosecution of one Maltese national and one Chinese national, both for forced prostitution, compared to four individuals prosecuted in 2016. Three labor trafficking prosecutions initiated in 2014 and a 2004 case involving a police official for collusion with a trafficker remained pending at the close of the reporting period." [Update] According to Maltese law, the victim's consent is irrelevant in human trafficking cases. However, if they claim not to be trafficked, they face the risk of being sentenced for loitering.

Many reports blame the police for not doing enough against human trafficking. But this interview implies that the police are perhaps doing too much -- or looking in the wrong places. Are builders, harvesters or young pickpockets more likely victims of human trafficking than sex workers? Not necessarily -- after all, Spiteri merely argues that not all sex workers are trafficking victims, implying that some are indeed victims.

Details from the story:

  • The Maltese police have observed the proliferation of brothels loosely disguised as massage parlours. They raid them to inspect whether these businesses are profiting off trafficked women
  • Inspector John Spiteri is in charge of the prostitution investigations.
  • Analyzing messages in the workers' phones, the police have concluded that most of them knew what their work would entail before coming to Malta. They estimate that there are more non-trafficked foreign sex workers than trafficked ones.
  • In court, the women told they shared half their earnings with their pimps and made twice the average wage in Malta, and many times more than in their home countries.
  • Selling and buying sex (or comparable service) is not illegal in Malta, but profiting from another person's prostitution is criminalized.
  • The police believe that there is nonetheless an element of coercion in prostitution -- even if it's economic.
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