Fake massage parlours operating as thinly-veiled brothels are spreading across Malta since the government’s decision to withdraw the licensing requirement for such establishments in 2016, raising “concern about the possible dangers of trafficking and modern slavery”, according to a group of 40 NGOs.
“We know very little about the women working in these so-called ‘massage parlours’,” the coalition told The Shift. “We know that they are mostly foreigners, and many are Chinese.”
An investigation into massage parlours in Malta by The Shift shed light on the abuse and lack of law enforcement. It also revealed that over €16 million a year is generated out of these illicit services.
“Prostitution is rarely about ‘happy hookers’ making a free choice and earning good money. The reality shows us that they are often psychologically unwell, physically trapped and injured women – nearly all of whom want to leave,” said Anna Borg, director at the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta.
Economy Minister Chris Cardona confirmed that massage parlours no longer needed to be regulated or licensed, resulting in a situation where it is now impossible to ascertain how many massage parlours operate in Malta, or what goes on inside them. Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia had claimed last year that there were zero reports of massage parlours being used as brothels.
The Shift’s investigation revealed a different story. Some 100 adverts for ‘massage parlours’ were found on social media, all displaying a roster of hyper-erotic photographs of women from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. The women’s faces were obscured, an obvious sign of illicit activity according to guidelines published by the Polaris Project on how to spot illegal trafficking in massage parlours.
The Shift also exposed private communication channels where the ‘services’ offered by different women were discussed and recommendations shared.
Further investigations revealed that people charged with human trafficking offences were openly running ‘massage parlours’ in Malta. After deregulation resulted in what a nurse described as a “health epidemic” as more than 500 men were tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) at the GU clinic over a two year period, showing a 70% since 2010.
The government’s policies have resulted in increased demand for prostitutes, which in turn results in higher demand for trafficked women and girls, according to the coalition.
“Prostitution is a deeply gendered and global phenomenon, involving primarily women and girls – being bought, primarily by men. The overwhelming majority of prostitutes are younger than 18 when they enter prostitution, and some girls are groomed from a very early age, as young as 12.”
Malta has been criticised for not meeting the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. The US State Department said Malta is a “source and destination country” and that the government needed to do more to protect victims and to prosecute those involved. Only one trafficker has been convicted in Malta since 2012, and he received a suspended sentence, according to the latest report by the US State Department.
In 2019, the government cut its already insignificant anti-trafficking budget from €20,000 to €16,000 and instead spent €120,000 on a campaign that included a website, an art exhibition and television adverts.
When asked about the recent campaign that saw several notable landmarks in Malta lit up with blue lights, the coalition said that while media campaigns can be effective in raising awareness and changing perceptions, they “have concerns about the budget for human trafficking, and especially about the need for more professionals to work in this important area”.
But it isn’t just the government that is failing women. As Borg explained, “prostitution is often trivialised and seen as harmless fun”, something that occurs between two consenting adults. In reality, many prostituted people are trafficked and are under the control of pimps and gangs.
“The implications of trafficking and prostitution are significant for both the agency and wellbeing of victims and for society at large,” she said. “The general public often assumes that entering into prostitution is tantamount to making a free choice, but this is not the case.”
With an industry driven by criminal gangs, worth some $3 billion annually and increasing year by year, this coalition of NGOs felt that something had to be done. “Our main message to the authorities is that where prostitution is decriminalised demand soars and trafficking increases. Trafficking and prostitution exist because they are profitable and legislative regimes allow it.”
“As a coalition, we have come up with multiple suggestions on how the issue of prostitution and trafficking should be tackled. Our proposals are founded on the fundamental value that trafficking and prostitution are forms of coercive violence, and that violence cannot be legalised or regulated, only outlawed.”
The proposals, presented to the government last week, seek to “prioritise the promotion of human rights and gender equality while embracing freedom and wellbeing.” They are urging the government to make buying sex a criminal offence, while at the same time decriminalising those who are prostituted.
But setting survivors free from prostitution does not end their problems. Many former sex workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide attempts, as well as physical health problems including sexually transmitted infections. The coalition recommends the implementation of substantial exit services to provide victims with legal, health, financial, educational and social services.
The coalition is adamant that all three policies must be implemented as a package. Decriminalising those who are prostituted without making the buying of sex a crime would only open up the sex industry more and increase trafficking. The police and the courts must also adopt a zero-tolerance approach, along with the specialist investigatory capacity to prosecute offenders, according to the recommendations made to the government.
Decriminalisation of both buying and providing sex would lead to a situation where demand soars and trafficking increases, as has been seen in other countries, the group insists. The normalisation leads to “perverse outcomes including purchasers continuing to buy sex despite the prostituted persons being minors or having been trafficked.”
Yet, human rights NGOs Aditus and Integra disagree, calling for complete decriminalisation. Sex workers should be allowed to practice their work on their own terms and exit the profession when they want to while being able to feel safe and free from exploitation, the two organisations said in a statement.
The coalition said this would not protect vulnerable people: “The Integra/Aditus proposal would have devastating long term physical and mental health repercussions on all prostituted persons, including those involved from the LGBTIQ and migrant communities. Prostitution can never be equated with a ‘normal’ job, a body can never be adequately protected as a ‘place of work’”.
The group’s submissions were drafted by a multi-disciplinary coalition of academics, lawyers and people who work directly with prostituted and trafficked people.