Women’s organisations are calling for the demand for prostitution to be criminalised to better protect victims like eastern European women who have been caught up in a shocking web of sex crime in Malta.

Victims have no idea where to seek help and don’t know about the 179 support line

Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations chairman Renee Laiviera said demand for prostitution, rather than supply, was the real problem as she urged the authorities to institute legal measures against clients seeking out prostitutes.

She said Malta should emulate the direction taken by Nordic countries: “We should take the initiative and introduce such legal measures in the shortest timeframe possible.”

In Malta the law prohibits loitering and living off the earnings of prostitution, but it does not penalise demand.

Last Thursday, Raymond Mifsud was jailed for 11 years for luring women to Malta by offering them work in a restaurant. Instead, the pimp locked them inside his farmhouse and forced them to have sex with men for €35.

If they refused to work as prostitutes, he offered them a job in a strip bar or ‘sold’ them to someone else for about €1,200 to settle the debt they incurred in travelling to Malta.

The international ring was smashed after one of the girls managed to make a desperate call to her mother back in Russia in 2004. The mother contacted the police, effectively breaking the ring, which included a policeman in the immigration department who issued the visas.

Supporting criminalisation of demand for prostitution, Roberta Lepre, from Victim Support Malta, also called for better regulation of the oldest profession and brothels.

She said it was important to ensure a more proactive and preventative approach.

“This would ensure the public becomes more confident that effective action will be taken if they decide to report a suspicious situation,” she said.

Internationally, it is generally accepted that such cases are prosecuted following reports from the public, she said. However, it is estimated that only one out of every 800 cases of human trafficking results in conviction.

When asked what regulations were in place to protect women from such trafficking, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry said: “Keeping people in ‘sex slavery’ involves the commission of very serious offences and violates various laws...

“It is the duty of the police to investigate all criminal offences and, therefore, the offences mentioned fall under the general powers of investigation and prosecution of the police.”

Human rights advocacy groups said the sex slavery ring, exposed in the court case, highlighted the urgent need to reach out to women being forced into prostitution to make them aware help was available.

Police carried out inspections about four times a week and were actually disrupting business

“Victims have no idea where to seek help and don’t know about the 179 support line. We need to advertise it as much as possible,” said Neil Falzon from human rights organisation Aditus.

Dr Falzon and Maria Pisani, director of Integra Foundation, said the court case showed the imminent need to implement the action plan on combating human trafficking launched last October. The plan includes an awareness campaign to equip victims with information. Dr Falzon said the law should be reviewed to offer more protection to victims, who were usually vulnerable foreigners.

Victims often feared speaking up for fear of being deported. The law should allow for circumstances to stop deportation if it meant throwing women back into the human trafficking ring.

Ms Pisani highlighted the importance of raising public awareness about the realities of human trafficking and targeting those who demanded prostitution to teach them what their demands actually meant.

However, Ronnie Axisa, director of Stiletto gentlemen’s club in Paceville, said police carried out inspections about four times a week and were actually disrupting business.

Police asked the dancers for their passport and working documents and questioned them about why they were there and whether they were being forced to do their job.

Mr Axisa said he employed the girls through a Romanian dancer agency. He also asked them to sign a contract stating they were not forced to work there and that their job was limited to table dancing.

Questions sent to the police, asking what action was effectively being taken, remained unanswered.

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