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Blue-washing human trafficking and budget cuts

Castille is lit up blue for anti-human trafficking awareness

A number of landmark buildings in Malta were covered in blue today as part of a government initiative to mark World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. It was part of a €120,000 campaign to raise awareness on the issue, at a time when the government reduced the budget allocated to actually tackling the problem to €16,000.

The blue light refers to the Blue Heart Campaign by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) aimed at raising awareness on human trafficking, to “stop criminals from ruthlessly exploiting people for profit and to help victims rebuild their lives”.

The Maltese government recently launched the ‘Human, Like You’ campaign, said to be “the first concrete step towards the consolidation of Maltese strategy against this international phenomenon”. Yet questions have been raised on whether the campaign is more about fluff than substance, since the goverment has actually cut expenditure allocated to the problem.

Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli said the campaign would strengthen anti-human trafficking laws – a “breach of human rights” the governent planned to tackle. Yet, the Maltese government has reduced its anti-trafficking budget from an already insignificant €20,000 to €16,000 this year.

According to the US State Department report, the Maltese government is failing to “fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”, having only convicted one trafficker since 2012 which resulted in a suspended sentence.

The report notes a “lack of coordination between ministries” and a failure to effectively control the licensing for massage parlours thinly veiled as brothels, a destination for human trafficking victims exposed by The Shift.

The US State Department report identifies Malta as both a source and destination” country for trafficked individuals. In line with the government response to criticism on corruption and failings on the rule of law, Farrugia Portelli said she felt that some of the points raised in the report were unfair”.

Examples of “trafficked” humans from the Human, like you website. Posed by models.

The government’s campaign website makes two references to prostitution and sex trafficking. Yet in massage parlours around the country where there a “high vulnerability for sex trafficking” has been recorded, there has been no effective action. 

In 2018, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia told Parliament there had been no reports of massage parlours being used as brothels. Yet, an investigation by The Shift News revealed a different picture. 

Around 100 adverts were found on social media that openly advertised ‘massage parlours’ in Malta. They bore the characteristics of illicit acivity including a rotating roster of women from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, exclusively male clients, and hyper-erotic photographic adverts with the women’s faces obscured.

A total of 196 massage parlours were licensed in the country in 2016. Yet it’s now not possible to confirm the real figure, since the government removed the need for licensing the following year.

Farrugia Portelli said the campaign was the “first step” in a process to strengthening anti-human trafficking laws, adding that it was a “breach of human rights” that the government planned to tackle.

The US State Department report recommended the government “vigorously and expeditiously investigate and prosecute trafficking offences”. The report also highlighted the need for increased efforts in training staff to identify victims in vulnerable populations, to provide anti-trafficking training for police officers, prosecutors, and judges, as well as to provide interpreters for victims and improve licence control for massage parlours.

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Petra Caruana Dingli at The Shift News

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