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The government’s decision to abolish licensing of massage parlours ‘wrong’

Malta's many massage parlours posing a threat to public health.

Massage parlours throughout Malta are being used for prostitution and human trafficking – this was obvious when The Shift revealed the findings of its investigation that highlighted the need for regulation. Now, new statistics reveal the impact of the government’s decision to do away with regulation.

One in 10 male visitors to a Maltese GU clinic admitted to having had unprotected sex in a massage parlour, with men over 50 being the most common age group, according to recently released statistics from Mater Dei Hospital reported in The Times of Malta.

More than 500 men were tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) at the clinic over a two year period, showing a 70% since 2010.

Despite the risk of what one nurse described as a “public health epidemic”, government representatives continue to deny the existence of a problem, with Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia telling parliament last year that there were no reports of massage parlours being used as brothels, soon after The Shift had published its findings.

Read: Malta’s sex slaves hiding in plain sight

An investigation by The Shift found over 100 adverts for ‘massage parlours’ on social media, displaying a roster of hyper-erotic photographs of women from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, with the women’s faces obscured, an obvious warning sign of illicit activity, according to guidelines published by the Polaris Project on how to spot illegal trafficking in massage parlours.

Further investigation by The Shift revealed that people charged with human trafficking offences were openly running ‘massage parlours’ in Malta, and that over €16 million a year was being generated from illicit services.

There were some 196 licenced ‘massage parlours’ in Malta until 2016, but the government quietly dropped the requirement for massage parlours to be regulated or licenced. This was confirmed in parliament by Economy Minister Chris Cardona (of all people), resulting in a situation where it is impossible to know the actual number of massage parlours operating in the country today.

Read: The bottom line – over €16 million a year from illicit services at massage parlours

Malta has been widely criticised for not meeting minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. The US State Department has repeatedly called on Malta, which it labelled a “source and destination country”, to do more to identify and protect victims, as well as to “vigorously and expeditiously” prosecute those involved. Only one trafficker has been convinced in Malta since 2012, resulting in a suspended sentence, according to the 2018 report.

The US State Department further suggested as a “prioritised recommendation” that the Maltese government improve licence control for massage parlours due to a lack of regulation in places “of high concern for sex trafficking”. 

The government responded by calling the observations unfair”.Rather than take action to address the situation, they cut the anti-trafficking budget from €20,000 to €16,000, preferring to spend  €120,000 on a campaign that included a website, an art exhibition, and television adverts.

Evidently, this did not address the problem.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Malta has the second-highest rate of syphilis in Europe, with cases having more than doubled in seven years.

In addition to passing these diseases on to their wives and partners, men who have unprotected sex with prostitutes may also be exposing their loved ones to a higher risk of cervical cancer through one of the most commonly contracted STDs, human papillomavirus (HPV), which can develop into cancer in women, The Times reports.

The PN issued a statement calling on the government to take immediate action to regulate massage parlours and to combat the trafficking of persons. 

“The government’s decision to dispense with the licensing and regulation of this sector was wrong, and it was taken without due consideration to the consequences. This is clear from the ugly reality that has unfolded in our country on related diseases,” MP Claudette Buttigieg said.

Take a look at The Shift’s investigation here.

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