A lack of coordinated efforts to beef up enforcement and the absence of a strong regulatory framework have fuelled concerns that well-known, illicit activities at some massage parlours are staying under the radar.

This sentiment has been conveyed both through the official channels, from which information is scant, as well as through law enforcement sources.

According to police records, in the last three years, just 17 “inspections” have been carried out in massage parlours, resulting in 15 arraignments on charges of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and breaches in employment law.

However, police sources admit that these numbers probably do not reflect the true picture of the situation.

“While enforcement is being hindered by the fact that these places are largely unregulated, it is also an open secret that at times enforcement is being done superficially or only on the strength of reports filed by the victims or suspicious neighbours,” said sources close to the police.

The proliferation of massage parlours in several towns and villages is a relatively recent phenomenon. Mostly operated by Eastern Europeans and Asians, they have mushroomed in the last decade, fuelling suspicions that they are being used by an underground sex industry that at times involves human trafficking.

The debate was recently stoked by a series of arrests in Paceville and Swieqi.

One case involved a Thai-born masseuse who claimed to have been sexually exploited, underpaid and mistreated while working at a Paceville parlour. The case only came to light after she plucked up the courage to go to the police and file a report. A Maltese man and his Chinese partner have been charged.

In another case, six women and a man, all from Bulgaria and Moldova, were jailed after pleading guilty to operating a brothel out of a three-bedroom apartment in a residential zone in Swieqi. The illicit activity was busted open following months of observation by the police, as well as repeated complaints by neighbours and anonymous letters.

Soon after the first case emerged, this newspaper sent questions to the authorities to inquire on the sort of enforcement taking place. However, very little feedback was received.

As a matter of fact, The Sunday Times of Malta was not even able to establish the number of licenced massage parlours in Malta and Gozo, or if any measures were in the pipeline to crack down on abuse.

An Economy Ministry spokeswoman declined to give any figures, saying from the start of this year, the obligation for premises-based business activities to obtain a licence had been removed.

The manner in which inspections are carried out in Paceville is rather mediocre and is by no means proactive

Nonetheless, the spokeswoman pointed out that no proper massage parlour licences had ever been issued. Instead, places of this sort had been licenced to render “beauty treatment and physical well-being” services following clearance from the Health Department.

At the time of writing, no replies had been received to questions sent to the Health Ministry.

As for enforcement, the Eco-nomy Ministry spokeswoman insisted it fell under the remit of the police force.

In a terse reply received a month after the questions were sent, the police said that over the last three years 17 “inspections” had been carried out and 15 persons charged. The information was sent last Thursday, however, following the imprisonment of the seven Swieqi brothel organisers. The newspaper has not yet managed to clarify whether the 15 arraignments included the seven.

The Sunday Times of Malta also spoke to police officers who are normally on the beat on the condition of anonymity.

“The manner in which inspections are carried out in Paceville is rather mediocre and is by no means proactive,” one said. “We only intervene if a report has been filed or if the case is presented on a silver platter.”

Officers also pointed out that there seemed to be a grey area, in that it was not clear whether an officer could take action without being accompanied by an employment inspector.

“Furthermore, there seems to be a degree of apathy in the various entities involved, which discourages us even further from taking action,” the police officers confided.

Criticism was also levelled at the lack of resources and the level of communication within the force in order to keep the officers who are on the beat continuously alerted to developments.

“In certain cases, it is more than obvious that something is going on behind the scenes, as no ordinary shop would still have the lights on after business hours.

“Such movement should be enough to sound the alarm bells, but this is not always the case,” the sources said.

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