Durban - Hundreds of Asian women are being lured to South Africa to work in the illicit sex industry, with scores of them operating from suburban Durban homes, a Daily News investigation has uncovered.
The women, mostly Chinese and Thai nationals, offer their services through local online “escort services” websites and charge anything from R300 for a half hour to R700 an hour for their company.
South Africa receives a hammering in the US Department of Defence 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, alleging police complicity and citing a lack of government will to prosecute.
It says that 180 Thai women - identified as victims of trafficking - were assisted and repatriated by the Thai Embassy in South Africa last year. But there were no related prosecutions.
Durban police sources believe that many of these women are being trafficked into the country by organised crime syndicates.
Investigators and human trafficking experts believe many of them were brought to the country on the pretence of working in restaurants or shops but were then forced into the sex trade.
They do however say that some of the women come to the country willingly to work as prostitutes.
“Asian women are known to be trafficked into South Africa for the purposes of sexual exploitation by Chinese and Thai crime syndicates,” Dr Monique Emser, a researcher affiliated to the KwaZulu-Natal Human Trafficking, Prostitution, Pornography and Brothel Task Team told the Daily News.
Emser, who compiled the first LexisNexis Human Trafficking Awareness Index last year, said that some of the trafficked women were sold into sexual slavery, sometimes “indefinitely”.
She said it was difficult to say how many women on the online escort sites were trafficked into South Africa.
“Unfortunately, as sex work is a criminal offence in South Africa, the industry remains unregulated and sex workers are exposed to various degrees of exploitation, abuse, discrimination and violence by their ‘employers’, clients and public officials - ranging from the police to health care workers,” Emser said.
“One thing is certain, that all these young women would have experienced some form of abuse, violence or exploitation, and possibly even coercion at some stage in their work as prostitutes.”
According to the Trafficking in Persons Report, Nigerian syndicates dominate the commercial sex trade in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, while Russian and Bulgarian crime syndicates operate in the Cape Town sex trade, and Chinese nationals co-ordinate the sex trafficking of Asian nationals.
The report noted that the Department of Social Development funded 13 accredited multipurpose shelters, which hosted 80 foreign and 13 South African adult trafficking victims last year - an increase from 87 victims in 2012 and 59 in 2011.
The Daily News established that more than a dozen Asian sex workers were operating from homes in Morningside, Durban North, Malvern and the Bluff. It was difficult to establish how many were in the country willingly as many claimed not to speak good English.
According to the LexisNexis index, 540 people were trafficked into South Africa over a two-year period between 2012 and last year. Not all those trafficked into the country are for the sex industry, with some forced into labour and others into arranged marriages.
A police source who has been part of scores of raids on brothels in Durban said it was difficult for investigators to nail the kingpins in the international trafficking syndicate, as they used trusted middlemen to run the brothels.
“We have done raids in brothels in Glenwood, Morningside, Musgrave and uMhlanga and found foreign girls who are prepped to say they are with their boyfriends,” said the officer, who cannot be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“Most of the time there is a lady whom the syndicate trusts who is left in charge of the women.
“She is responsible for collecting the money and keeps the women in line.”
Most of the women were in the country on tourist visas, the source said.
They were often told if they did not comply their families back home would be hurt.
“They are allowed to send money back home and keep some for themselves but for them to get out of their ‘contract’ they have to make on average R200 000 for the syndicate before they are given their passports back and can return home,” the source said.
Thuli Khoza, the spokeswoman for Sisonke, a sex workers advocacy group in Durban, said they were aware of the plight of trafficked prostitutes and did their best to help.
“Last year we told about this house in Pietermaritzburg that had a whole lot of Chinese women in it and who were apparently being kept against their will.
“We got in contact with the Hawks and told them about it but when they went there, the girls had already been taken (away),” she said.
“The people who bring the girls here work with corrupt police. Whether these policemen told them about the raid or they just moved the girls before, we do not know.”
Sally Shackleton, director of the Sex Workers Education Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), said foreign sex workers operating in the country was a “tricky situation” and needed to be approached with caution.
“The trafficking issue needs to be investigated fully by the police and the culprits brought to book,” she said.
“However, just because someone is foreign and working in South Africa as a sex worker, does not make them trafficked. We tend to isolate foreign sex workers and what this means is that they are reluctant to come forward for assistance such as health care because they are afraid.”
Shackleton said part of the problem was that sex work remained illegal in South Africa which made it difficult to assess the true situation.
“Those that do arrive in South Africa to work as sex workers are exploited by their employers and that is an issue that also needs to be addressed,” she said.
“However, we need to find the proper language to describe the women who work in the sex industry, because saying every foreign girl here is trafficked is problematic.”
Finding a sex worker in South Africa is just a click away
Gone are the days when men had to venture to the seedy parts of the city for a lady of the night.
A host of “online escort services” means customers can find a woman of their choice on the internet. And the service is legal.
A disclaimer on one of the sites states: “This is not an offer for prostitution. All fees are exchanged for time and companionship only. No fees of any kind will be quoted, negotiated, or collected in exchange for any sexual conduct. Anything else that may occur is a matter of personal choice between two consenting adults of legal age, and is not contracted for, nor is it requested to be contracted for, or compensated for in any manner.”
The Daily News contacted three escort services for comment on human trafficking but only one, Redvelvet was willing to say anything.
A spokesman for the website who did not want his name used said they had never encountered women who were being held against their will.
“This is not something we have encountered or are aware of in our line of business. That is not our area of business as a reputable website. Anyone who deals with us approaches voluntarily. Any such practices are vehemently opposed by us,” he said in an e-mailed response.
US trafficking report
The US department of Defence 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report found that the South African government “lacked formal procedures for properly screening and identifying trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, including illegal migrants and women in prostitution”.
“As a result, some foreign victims were repatriated without being identified. The government failed to systematically address labour trafficking offences or successfully prosecute cases against any major international syndicates responsible for much of the sex trafficking in the country. A serious lack of capacity and widespread corruption among the police force stymied progress in anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts,” the report said.
“Official complicity in trafficking crimes was a serious concern. Well-known brothels, including some that have previously housed sex trafficking victims, continued to operate without police intervention, at times a result of official complicity. The government failed to prosecute any officials allegedly complicit in trafficking-related crimes. Many stakeholders report the failure of police to proactively identify sex trafficking victims or pursue investigations; police regularly removed alleged victims of sex trafficking from brothels without opening investigations against the perpetrators. NGOs report that police officers solicited commercial sex acts from trafficking victims.”
In 2013, President Jacob Zuma signed the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Bill into law, giving the country, for the first time, a statute dealing specifically with human trafficking.
It carries a maximum penalty of R100 million or life imprisonment, or both, if convicted.
However the statute has yet to be promulgated.