Chinese massage parlour workers have unprotected sex and their movements are often restricted, exposing them to disease and exploitation, according to a new report.

An academic paper to be published soon lifts the lid on the shadowy world of Malta’s sex trade, offering a rare glimpse of life inside the country’s massage parlours.

The 24-month study collected data from 2018 to 2019 and its authors include GU (genitourinary) clinic director Valeska Padovese.

The study looks into sexual and gender-based violence in Malta focusing on migrants. 

Although it is not its focus, the paper includes the experiences of 16 Chinese women who worked in massage parlours that have mushroomed across Malta in recent years.

They are rendered completely dependent on their employers

These women, described in the paper as being “at risk”, detail how they are housed at their place of work or made to share accommodation with their employers and co-workers.

This, coupled with restrictions to their movement and, at times, access to their passports, rendered many of them “completely dependent on their employers”, the paper reads.

Other “warning signs of trafficking” included one woman’s “obliviousness to the exact whereabouts of their accommodation”.

The authors suggest this could be symptomatic of the type of coercion these women are exposed to.

The workers at massage parlours also exhibited a lack of knowledge of the local language and culture, having only lived on the island for a short period of time, meaning their lives here were all the more isolated.

Few women used contraceptives

The women were aged between 33 and 52. While all of them were visa-holders, they had all spent less than a year living and working in Malta.

They also had limited knowledge of the medical support and the types of screening available in Malta, despite engaging in risky sexual activity.

They acceded to clients’ regular request to engage in sex without a condom, something particularly frequent when performing oral sex. 

Only four women said they always used a contraceptive during sexual intercourse with customers. And condoms were never used for oral sex, the paper says.

After being screened at Mater Dei Hospital, three of the women were diagnosed with latent syphilis, one with chlamydia infection and two with HPV infections and cervical atypical smears.

The paper says that 11 Chinese sex workers were identified as sexual contacts of other patients who tested positive for sexually-transmitted infections at the GU clinic.

Another three were referred by a doctor because of symptoms while the remaining two were urged to seek testing by their co-workers in the same parlours. 

200 registered parlours in 2016

Malta has a thriving albeit illegal sex trade industry. Up until 2016 there were nearly 200 registered massage parlours on the island.

However, figures are not available for the years after that as the government removed licensing requirements for the establishments. 

In 2019, Times of Malta reported that about 500 men tested at the GU clinic over two years had conceded to having had sex with sex workers.

Nearly one in every 10 men who signed up to be tested at the clinic between 2017 and 2019 admitted to paying a sex worker for a sexual encounter in Malta.

Most of them had sought testing after developing symptoms of sexually transmitted infection.

Abuse of migrants

The report also details the harrowing stories of abuse suffered by migrants treated at the hospital’s GU clinic.

One Nigerian sex worker, a 34-year-old woman, was forced into prostitution in Libya.

She was trafficked to Malta suffering from intermenstrual bleeding and vaginal discharge, due to an infection she contracted from her abusers.

A 29-year-old man, from Cameroon, recounted the abuse he had suffered: forced to have condomless sex under the influence of drugs as he was trafficked through Nigeria.

Others spoke of violence suffered following their arrival in Europe. A 25-year-old woman from Gambia reported that she had been held captive by three compatriots in Italy and subjected to ongoing sexual abuse.

A 22-year-old man from Mali reported having been sexually assaulted in Malta by a fellow national in a migrant centre.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the paper says, are often prevalent in migrants due to limited condom use and the high incidence of sexual abuse during the migration journey.

Migrants exhibit a lack of prevention and risky behaviours. They also have barriers to accessing sexual health services and a fear of being deported due to their illegal status.

Migrants often present late to the GU service, with complicated infections and advanced stage of HIV disease.

What do the authors suggest?

The authors argue that migrants, particularly non-EU nationals, experience violence at various stages of their migration journey, including post-arrival.

The paper calls for outreach and training of professionals working in the field of migration to augment access to GU clinic services, particularly for female migrants.

The authorities should also work to ensure easy access to trained cross-cultural mediators and specialised healthcare providers to overcome obstacles to communication and build trust with migrant communities.

They also suggest improving data collection and sharing on the issue of sexual and gender violence.

GU clinic in figures

During the 24-month study period, a total of 12,594 patients accessed the GU clinic.

Demographic data was collected on age, gender, nationality, marital status and sexual orientation.

In total, 4,663 patients (37 per cent) had at least one STI or skin condition.

Of these, 81 per cent (3,779) had at least one diagnosis.

The most common diagnosis is anogenital warts, with 13 per cent (1,679). 

Nearly four per cent of the study population were persons living with HIV, while 72 patients (0.6 per cent) had a new HIV diagnosis.

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