At 9pm on a cool night in June 1995, six plain-clothed immigration officers and two police constables burst through the door of a seedy terrace house in Sydney's inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. "This is a raid, nobody move!" yelled one of the officers, as the shocked receptionist sat, frozen, at her desk.
Quickly, about a dozen young Asian prostitutes and their sheepish-looking clients were rounded up and asked to produce identification. Among the motley collection of men and women, one girl stood out. Startlingly beautiful, with flashing eyes and luminous skin, she caught the attention of the officials, mainly due to her obvious youth - she looked worryingly young. On being questioned, she told them her name was Nikkie, before breaking down in floods of tears and describing how she had been forced to sleep with 100 men in 10 days. Then she told them her age.
She was just 13 years old.
Chris Payne, then a detective with the Australian Federal Police, recalls, "She looked so lost and terrified, and she couldn't stop sobbing. My heart went out to her. It was a sad, shocking sight, seeing a young girl who'd been raped by so many men." Payne's empathy was made even more acute by the fact that his own daughter, Jessica, was just a few years younger than Nikkie. "I felt awful, knowing what she'd been through," he adds.
Following standard police procedure at the time, Nikkie was taken to the Department of Immigration offices for questioning, before being placed into the care of the NSW Department of Community Services because of her age. Five days later, she was deported back to Thailand, while the brothel owners escaped being charged, mainly due to the fact that no trafficking laws existed at the time.
And that's where the story would have ended, had it not been for the tenacity of Payne, who couldn't get Nikkie's anguished face out of his mind, and a chance meeting with Melbourne filmmaker Luigi Acquisto, who became intrigued by her story in the media.
Nine years later, the pair would team up and embark on a search for answers - what had happened to that tragic young girl who was caught up in a horror story of her own? They would piece together Nikkie's sorrowful journey for a television documentary called Trafficked, travel to Thailand, track her down and, in an extraordinary twist to the tale, even empower her to seek justice many years later. In fact, she is soon due to return to Sydney, to pursue a claim for compensation for the pain and suffering she endured during her enslavement at the Surry Hills brothel.
Nikkie's story, as Payne and Acquisto would discover, began in Thailand's Isaan region, where she was born on August 21, 1981. Her early life was marred by tragedy - her mother died in a car crash when she was two and her sister, Mutt, was one. After their mum's death, the girls' paternal grandmother raised them in a one-room home typical of their poor farming village, while their father Sumrit, a labourer, lived locally, but saw his daughters only sporadically.
Life was simple but Nikkie was happy and carefree, playing basketball and hanging out with her large circle of friends. She was a feisty young girl and, by 13, had developed a typical teenage rebellious streak - eager, like most young women, to test the boundaries. One night, she went to a party and didn't come home until the next day, which incensed her father who, although not always around, still wielded a powerful patriarchal influence over the family. The following day he confronted Nikkie and she confessed she had lost her virginity - an admission that would have dire and unforeseen consequences. "He hit me. I got angry, so I ran away," she would later reveal. "He said that I was now 'spoiled'. Then he said someone had asked if I wanted a job. I asked where and he said it was overseas."
Nikkie's father explained she would work as a maid or a nanny, earning 500,000 baht ($18,000), enough to buy a new family home. So, excited by the adventure it promised, Nikkie naively accompanied her father and a family she had never met before - Vichien Serirat, 59, and her adult children, daughter Porn and son Chana - across the border to Malaysia. It was here that Sumrit and Chana left Nikkie, scared and alone, in the hands of Vichien and Porn. Within a few days, this trusting teenager, who couldn't speak English, was handed a fake passport to board an eight-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney - a city she couldn't even locate on a map.
Once there, she was taken to the brothel at 1 Blackburn Street, Surry Hills, and all too soon, the true nature of her employment became horrifyingly clear. Threatened with brutal beatings if she didn't comply, Nikkie choked back her tears and made a silent vow: she would do whatever it took to get home to the people she loved.
Sadly, Nikkie's tragic experience was far from unique - she was just one of an estimated 1000 women and children being trafficked in Australia at any one time, according to Project Respect, a Melbourne-based advocacy group. But back in 1995, when Chris Payne was in charge of Operation Paper Tiger, a task force dedicated to investigating sex trafficking in this country, the issue was relatively new and rarely publicised. In fact, Payne, who worked for the federal police for 19 years before retiring in 1997, had set up the squad only three years earlier, when he first encountered the horrific trade in women.
As there were no sex trafficking laws passed at the time, Payne was only able to charge offenders on related offences, such as tax evasion and immigration fraud. "The operation was disrupting them," he explains. "It was making them replace girls, costing them money. Even if we weren't sending them to jail, we were making things difficult for them."
But, as frustrating as the job sometimes was, Payne was still making headway until, suddenly, due to budget cuts, the task force was abruptly folded - just weeks before the Blackburn Street raid. "I was very disappointed with the decision to close it down," he concedes. In fact, Payne was so devastated that he decided to resign. "It led to me quitting the force and becoming a private investigator."
His experiences had given him a unique insight into the issue and he remains a committed and passionate advocate for victims' rights to this day. According to Payne, the majority of those trafficked are from poor, if not destitute, families. "Some think they're going to work as nannies and cleaners, but most soon realise when they get here that they'll be expected to work as prostitutes," he reveals. "What they're not told is that they must pay $50,000 to the person who smuggled them here before they can keep a cent. They have no passport, no money and no rights."
The legal climate in 1995 meant that victims were deported as illegal immigrants. There was no sexual servitude law - and there wouldn't be for another four years - so keeping the women here as witnesses served no purpose. And because so little manpower was devoted to investigating sex trafficking, its magnitude was vastly underestimated. "Immigration generally didn't realise it was organised crime," explains Payne.
Although Nikkie had been "rescued", simply sending victims like her home wasn't the end of the story - and over the next nine years, this sat uncomfortably at the back of Payne's mind. So when he met Acquisto, who told him of his plan to film Nikkie's story, Payne's curiosity was piqued. In 2004, the pair finally received funding to embark on the project.
Acquisto and Payne had just two leads when they flew to Bangkok in April 2004: the pseudonym "Nikkie" and the names of her Thai traffickers, the Serirat family, who had been sentenced to jail terms of between 14 and 19 years for their crime. "First we went to Khon Buri jail, an hour out of Bangkok, and asked to see the daughter [Porn Serirat]," says Payne. But she wasn't willing to assist. "She simply refused to help us."
Undeterred, they headed north to Phon district jail, near Khon Kaen, Thailand's fourth-largest city, to quiz the family matriarch, Vichien. To their astonishment, she agreed to talk. "She was not remorseful. She repeatedly told us, 'We had a deal with Nikkie's father, go and check with him,'" recalls Payne. "We asked her if she had any details about Nikkie's address and Vichien was able to describe where she thought Nikkie's family lived."
It led them to a home in the country's north-east. The elderly woman who answered the door told the translator she couldn't help them, but her countenance suggested otherwise. "She seemed to be hiding something. I could tell she was lying," insists Payne. Their instincts led them to doorknock neighbours and, eventually, they were pointed in the direction of a shopping centre where a woman matching Nikkie's description was working.
"We couldn't believe our luck. It turned out not to be Nikkie but her sister, Mutt," says Payne. They discovered that Nikkie's real name was Chetsadaporn Chalartlon, but her friends and family called her Ning. Mutt scribbled down her sister's phone number and, after a few false starts, with a wary Ning not readily agreeing to a meeting, she eventually invited the film crew into the modest one-room home she shared with her husband Noi, a mechanic, and their toddler son Pond. "It was quite emotional, meeting her again. She was an extremely thin, lovely young woman," recalls Payne. "It was an amazing moment," adds Acquisto.
There was a palpable sorrow in Ning's eyes as her thoughts drifted back to those first terrifying few days in the sordid Sydney brothel. "They told me that if I serviced 650 men I could go home," she reveals in the documentary. "I told my clients that I wanted to go home. No matter what, I wanted to go home."
Ning believes that her pleas worked as, soon after speaking to a Thai client, the raid took place and she was freed. Back in Thailand, Ning was sent to a children's home, where she agreed to give evidence against her traffickers. But despite her victory, Ning found little to celebrate: her heart was heavy with shame and her spirit broken by grief for her lost innocence. She even attempted suicide by cutting her wrists. "I was worried and depressed," she recounts.
For the next few years, life was bleak, and Ning began to seek comfort through street drugs like speed, "My friends gave me drugs ... they helped me forget," she admits.
Recalling her troubled life for the documentary, the ordeal is clearly etched on Ning's delicate face. While her son's eyes light up for the camera, Ning's stare blankly through the lens, as if bereft of life. The tears fall freely as she gingerly tells Acquisto and Payne about her life until the point she was reunited with her rescuer: the years she spent sleeping at friends' houses and on the streets because she was too ashamed to go home; a prolonged drug addiction to amphetamines, and, finally, the time her fortunes changed for the better when she met husband Noi and had their beloved son.
Ning maintains that it was this beautiful little boy with dark, innocent eyes who truly transformed her life. "I had no-one to talk to, no home. I had nothing. If it wasn't for my son, I would have kept using drugs, I would have died," she states. "I'm happy now, but if I think about the past I feel bad about myself."
Payne and Acquisto listened intently, their anger bubbling at hearing of the injustices this fragile young girl endured. But what they found most incomprehensible was that a father could sell his daughter (allegedly for 10,000 baht - $350 - and the promise of a new home) into this misery. Curious to hear his version of events, they contacted Sumrit, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he told them, "At the time, we had a financial crisis. I was struggling to find a job and Ning wanted to find work to help her dad. They promised me that nothing bad would happen."
However, empowered by Payne and Acquisto's search for answers, Ning has decided to seek justice in the hope of finally finding some closure, and so, with the legal assistance of Fiona McLeod SC, she has begun a fight to seek compensation. At the time of writing, her case was due to be considered early this year by the Victims Compensation Tribunal, where, like any victim of violent crime in NSW, Ning could be eligible for up to $50,000 in compensation from the state government. McLeod calls it a groundbreaking case brought by an "extraordinarily courageous young woman".
"This is the first case I know of where someone who's been a victim of trafficking has made a claim from our victims of crime legislation," professes an admiring McLeod. "I'm hoping it will encourage other victims to make the same sort of claims."
But the Australia Ning will return to almost 12 years after her ordeal is markedly different to the one she left. While 1 Blackburn Street is still operating as an illegal brothel (the City of Sydney council confirms it has never had a licence to operate and that a development application was refused in 1996), and the scale of trafficking is still alarming, there have been some positive changes to the law.
In 1999, due in part to persistent lobbying by Project Respect, an amendment was made to the Commonwealth's Criminal Code Act 1995, which deemed slavery and sexual servitude a punishable offence with jail terms of up to 25 years (it was amended again in 2005 to give the courts even greater scope for prosecution). Then, in 2003, the federal government announced a $20 million package, over four years, to "enhance the detection, investigation and prosecution of traffickers". Victims could now apply for two specialised visas, Bridging Visa F and the Criminal Justice Stay Visa, to remain in Australia and be able to assist authorities in the prosecution process.
And, since the amendments to the act, there has been one successful prosecution: on June 9, 2006, 44-year-old former brothel madam Wei Tang was sentenced in the Victorian County Court to 10 years jail, after being found guilty of charges of possessing and exercising power over five slaves.
Valli Mendez, co-ordinator of Project Respect, commends the government's direction but is agitating for even more change. Mendez says the current visa system discriminates between victims: those considered "valuable" in terms of aiding prosecutions can stay, while the rest are deported, as before. "I think the current system has to be a bit more flexible and a bit more humane in its approach," she asserts. This year, Project Respect will also utilise a $60,000 Victorian state government grant to support these "limbo" victims, including the provision of legal assistance. It's the first time a state government has stepped in with funding and Mendez hopes other states will heed this example and support trafficked women nationwide.
It's the least the governments could do for these victims - many of whom never have a voice - maintains Mendez.
Which makes Ning's fight for justice against all the odds even more heartening. "She's a gutsy woman," says Payne. "To have met Ning again and see that she has survived her ordeal gives me enormous satisfaction. There are so many women who just eventually fade away - and we'll never know what becomes of them."For a copy of Trafficked, visit Film Australia's website. To support or get involved in the work of Project Respect, visit www.projectrespect.org.au.