When a young Chinese woman in Melbourne received compensation as a victim of sex slavery, her case was hailed a victory - yet it was just the second of its kind. Why?

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For Qi*, every day was the same. Sitting hunched on a bed in a dark, dingy brothel, she'd wait for the creak of the old wooden stairs that heralded the arrival of another client. Exhausted from lack of sleep and nauseous from the musty stench of damp carpet and the prospect of the hours that stretched ahead, she'd barely flinch when the telltale creak finally came. Forced to submit to a long line of men no matter how drunk, drugged, putrid-smelling or violent, and forbidden to refuse a client, her only freedom was that she could insist they wear a condom.

Trapped by a "debt bond", her family under threat if she tried to escape, one extraordinary element separated Qi's story from that of most sex slaves: it was taking place in Melbourne.

Three years ago, hopeful of finding work as a waitress - and a new future - in Australia, Qi put her trust in a travel agent in a city near her village in China. She arrived here only to have him claim she owed him at least $30,000 in expenses and threaten that she and her family would "pay" if she didn't cough up. "I don't believe they ever intended to find me a job in a restaurant," says Qi now, marvelling at her naivety. "I trust[ed] lots of people. I just thought that there were more good people than bad people."

But that trust has finally been rewarded. In a landmark case at the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal in October 2010, Qi, who escaped the brothel after three months and being forced to service hundreds of men, was awarded around $25,000 compensation. Her successful claim - lodged by Melbourne's Fitzroy Legal Service with the support of Project Respect, an organisation that lobbies on behalf of sex workers - was the first in Victoria and just the second in Australia.

"I needed to get some help and to let people know that things like this are happening in Australia," asserts Qi.

Roughly 12 million people a year are trafficked worldwide. There's no reliable data on how many of those make it to Australia, but non-government organisations estimate they number in the thousands. Either way, human trafficking is a real problem in Australia, though the nation is only now beginning to comprehend the magnitude of it.

Although most victims are sourced from Thailand and Malaysia, an increasing number of Chinese and South Korean nationals are trafficked to Australia each year hoping for a better life. The 2009 US Department of State Human Rights Reports on Australia also maintains that this country is a destination for people "from several Pacific islands, India...and the Philippines", who are subjected to conditions of forced labour.

Human trafficking is a Commonwealth offence, yet, without a national system of crimes compensation, each state and territory decides whether or not victims are eligible for compensation under their various schemes. Thai woman Jetsadophorn "Ning" Chaladone, trafficked into Sydney's sex industry as a 13 year old in 1995, was the first victim of sex slavery in Australia to receive compensation, successfully applying to the New South Wales Victims Compensation Tribunal in 2007. Ning's traffickers confiscated her passport, beat and raped her and told her she needed to service around 650 clients in a Surry Hills brothel to repay a debt of $35,000. A client reported her situation to authorities and, 10 days later, having been forced to service around 100 men, she was discovered during a police raid on the brothel.

If so many are trafficked here for sex slavery each year, why have just two victims been awarded compensation?

Organisations that work with victims say lodging a compensation claim is not always a priority in the support process. Victims are often so traumatised and afraid because of the threats made against them and their families, many are reluctant to speak out. An increasing number are, however, working with law firms to seek retribution. Several victim support groups believe Australia's state-by-state model of compensation schemes creates nonsensical inconsistencies. The most a victim of crime could be awarded in Tasmania, for instance, is $30,000, while in Victoria the cap is $60,000. Victims "should be eligible for compensation, regardless of the state in which the offence occurred", Victoria's Deputy Premier Rob Hulls commented to marie claire.

Qi arrived in Melbourne in the spring of 2007. The clear, azure sky felt like the perfect start to her Australian adventure. The warm weather and tree-lined streets filled her with excitement about the days ahead. But shortly afterwards, she stood motionless in the middle of a cramped, mattress-strewn Melbourne apartment she was forced to share with six others, as her "travel agent" delivered the dev-astating news: "I can't find any work for you, but you owe us money," he barked. "We want it back quickly so you'll have to work at a brothel."

At first, Qi wasn't scared. She had been deceived - and she was furious. She screamed at the man, refusing to do what he was demanding, but knew in her heart she had no choice. He had hit her with the news when she was alone to intimidate her because he suspected she would protest. He was right. She had left her family and friends for this golden opportunity and needed to deliver. She was embarrassed she couldn't send money home, but more importantly, was terrified her traffickers would hurt her family.

What followed were three horrific months. Every day, as trams rattled along the boulevards of Melbourne, past cafes where office workers gossiped over lattes, Qi was driven to the brothel. She worked 18-hour shifts, seven days a week, to service up to 10 men a day. She was able to keep a third of the money she made from each customer, but with that had to buy food, pay rent and repay the massive debt. "They never told me how long I still had to go," says Qi of the debt. "I worked so hard, but I made so little money. I couldn't see when I could pay them back."

As she and her coworkers lined up each day to be selected, she knew that as the only "trafficked" worker on the six-women roster, she would get the scraps - the men the others refused. She had encountered it all before, at a restaurant she had worked at in China. Many of her colleagues doubled as sex workers servicing male diners, but she always refused to do that. News travelled fast in her home village, and she didn't want her family ridiculed or shamed. And they were still her priority. Every now and then, concedes Qi, she thought about taking her own life, but the fear of her family having to "pay" the debt kept her alive.

In 2004, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) established the Transnational Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking Team (TSETT) to investigate people-trafficking operations. National coordinator Dom-inic Stephenson says TSETT relies on the AFP's intelligence networks throughout Asia to trace trafficking syndicates, and what they encounter are sophisticated and structured organisations.

"A lot of the syndicates we look at are family based," reveals Stephenson. "You've got recruitment, then groups that organise transportation, visas, and then you've got a group here that organises the reception and exploitation in Australia. Everyone has their designated roles. In regard to the sex industry...they'll generally have a financer who's very hands off, then a direct manager of the worksite/brothel; and then you'll have a hierarchy within that brothel, so you'll have a driver and an underling manager, who is generally a worker herself, who'll monitor what the girls do at the safe house."

TSETT has undertaken more than 270 investigations and assessments since 2004. These have led to 39 charges and nine convictions. The first person found guilty of slavery by a jury in Australia was a woman called Wei Tang who, in 2006, was sentenced to 10 years' jail for keeping five Thai women as sex slaves under debt bondage in her Fitzroy brothel, Club 417.

Stephenson says that while investigations are critical to curb the crime, the victim's welfare is a priority. Since March 2009, the Red Cross has managed a program run through the Australian government's Office for Women. The Support for Victims of People Trafficking Program provides accommodation, training and financial and legal advice to victims intending to help an AFP investigation. The federal Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O’Connor, says the program has brought about positive change that works to "improve the support available for victims and their families, who have often suffered greatly as a result of the crime".

It seems Qi could have found salvation earlier than she did. She remembers being hidden in cars by coworkers during raids she thinks may have been by the AFP or the Department of Immigration. "I don't know whether I was unlucky or not," she says of not being discovered. She believed her traffickers' threats that she would be deported to China for not having a visa, and that she and her family would "pay" for not settling the debt.

But Qi could see no end to the nightmare. She was earning so little money, she felt depressed that she was letting her family down - and she was angry. "I couldn’t do it anymore." So she decided to flee. It was a journey she had played out in her head countless times: saying goodbye to no-one, she walked to a supermarket to buy lunch. Her heart was racing. Would they chase me? When will they realise I have gone? Qi was scared it wouldn't work, and that they would find her later and punish her. But she had no choice.

She was desperate. Qi got to the supermarket and ran. No-one had followed her. She was shaking, but she felt free. She had made rough plans to escape to the home of a friend - she declines to reveal his identity or how they met - and he urged her to report the situation to police. The AFP began investigating but Qi proved to be a reluctant witness. She did not know if she could trust the authorities, so their case against her traffickers was weak. As a result, her captors have never been prosecuted, but the police pointed her in the direction of Project Respect, which has supported her and helped her seek retribution.

Nina Vallins, Project Respect’s executive director, says she rarely meets a victim who has avoided violence. "We've supported women who have experienced verbal threats and threatening behaviour, but we've also supported women who have experienced terrifying violence: rape, and having guns pulled on them."

She hopes that the Tribunal's decision to recognise Qi as a victim of sexual servitude will spur other victims on in their quest for retribution. "If they're participating in a trial, they're just tools in the justice system; they're only as useful as their evidence is," comments Vallins, whose organisation works with around 40 victims of human trafficking every year, finding them accommodation, counselling, healthcare and legal advice. "They're not really treated as victims; they're treated as witnesses. So to get compensation and to have the [Tribunal] say to you, 'This is in recognition of the pain and suffering,' it gives them a sense that there has been some justice."

Vallins says women like Qi feel they have nowhere to turn and that they need a long time to feel comfortable to speak out. She says more must be done to highlight the issue of human trafficking in our own backyard. Qi agrees. "I want to tell the story to Australians [so they know] that things like this happen in Australia," she declares. "Some people, I think, don't believe that something like this happens."

Now in her early 30s, Qi is rebuilding her life. She has become a permanent resident of Australia, has taught herself English, completed a computer course and is looking for work opportunities.

Her 21-month pursuit for compensation for her pain and suffering has been a testing journey, and while she is pleased there has been recognition of her ordeal, she can never erase what happened.

HOW TO HELP:
To report a suspected case of human trafficking, call:
The Australian Federal Police on 1800 813 784.
Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

For more information, contact:
Project Respect, call (03) 9416 3401 or visit www.projectrespect.org.au.
The Anti-Slavery Project, call (02) 9514 9662 or visit www.antislavery.org.au.
Stop the Traffik, call (03) 9251 5277 or visit www.stopthetraffik.org.au.