Law makers mulling a prostitution reform were urged to stop the prosecution of sex workers and instead target pimps and those paying for sex.

During an expert conference themed 'Combating Human Trafficking Today', on Friday, calls were made for Parliament to protect women involved in prostitution when discussions on legal reforms were held.

The government has said that it is open to reforming existing prostitution laws, although it has not said what form revised laws should take. 

While some advocated the criminalisation of clients and pimps, others believe banning the purchase of sex placed sex workers in even more danger. 

UK journalist Julie Bindel, who has recently published a book on the subject, told the conference of the "disasters" where the industry had been completely legalised. 

Sounding a warning to Maltese law makers, Ms Bindel recounted her experiences documenting the sector in countries such as New Zealand, that had legalised the sex trade.

Massage parlours, acting as undercover brothels, have been mushrooming across the islandMassage parlours, acting as undercover brothels, have been mushrooming across the island

Rape and murder statistics, she said, were showing worrying trends in countries that had treated "working in brothels, the same as working in McDonalds". 

Worse still, these crimes were treated as occupational hazards for sex workers, and abuse by pimps and human traffickers, were breaches of contract.

"The inside of a woman's body can never be considered a work place. And the crimes that prostitutes suffer should not be normalised and treated like a simple work place injury," Ms Bindel said. 

Instead, she urged Malta to adopt what is known as the Nordic model approach to prostitution, which decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes paying people for sex a criminal offence. 

The approach, which has been widely acclaimed as the most successful, aims to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.

It has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, and, most recently, Ireland.

Read: PD backs Nordic Model for prostitution reform

Reforms Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli said the government was keen on addressing the issue, however, models that had been introduced abroad did not necessarily fit the Maltese context.  

Ms Farrugia Portelli said the mushrooming of massage parlours used as brothels, and gentleman's clubs that were often tied to human trafficking, showed there was a need to shake up the law. 

Earlier in September, Madam Justice Edwina Grima stressed the need for laws to regulate gentlemen's clubs in a society that, she said, was becoming “increasingly permissive”.

Watch: Gentleman's clubs are brothels

In August, Lara Dimitrijevic, a leading gender equality advocate said that gentlemen's clubs "glamorise prostitution" and should be closed.

The Tourism Ministry had also said, in August 2017, that it was considering rules for gentlemen's clubs which would, among other things, determine whether entertainers could perform naked, semi-naked or clothed.

As for massage parlours, a court recently heard how four women working in these undercover brothels received paid sex from five to 12 men each on any given day.  

Anna Borg, the director of the Centre for Labour Studies, told the conference that the cases in court - although alarming, where surely just the tip of the iceberg. 

Read: No to legalising prostitution, says woman's council

Inspector Joseph Busuttil, from the Vice Squad, told the conference that officers in Malta were duty bound to charge anyone for living off the earnings of prostitution. This often led to prostitutes ending up in court.  

"As an officer, I have to use the tools I am given, which in this case is the law. I have to enforce the law," he said. 

While it was clear the police had to follow the letter of the law, it was scenarios like this that showed how desperately the laws needed updating, Ms Bindel said.   

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