Young South African women are being given false job offers to lure them into prostitution in Macau, a former Portuguese colony now under Chinese control, says the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

IOM official Jonathan Martens told a three-day conference in Benoni that women were promised employment, luxury accommodation, and a payment of between $10 000 and $20 000.

Their passports were confiscated upon arrival in Macau.

The conference, entitled Next Steps To Path Breaking Strategies In The Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking In South Africa, has attracted over 100 participants.

Martens said South African traffickers earn around $500 for every woman recruited for prostitution in Macau, dubbed the Las Vegas of Asia for its casinos and nightclubs. Drugs played a "very big role" in recruitment, he said.

A woman identified only as Nicola, 23, told the IOM she had met nine other South Africans aged 18 to 21 in Macau who were forcefully prostituted.

The International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) estimates that traffickers earn as much as $19-billion a year.

The United Nations said up to 900 000 people are trafficked across international borders every year.

If the number of people who are trafficked within borders was taken into account, that figure would rise by about three million.

Women from rural China, many of them poorly educated, were often brought to South Africa, said Martens.

The women were flown to Johannesburg, and then taken to Swaziland, Lesotho or Mozambique.

They then cross the border back into South Africa - in a bid to circumvent airport immigration controls.

Eastern European women took a similar route into South Africa. They were trafficked by the Russian mafia and crime syndicates from Bulgaria, which owned clubs in South Africa.

In contrast to the Chinese recruits, women from Eastern Europe tend to be highly educated. However, they were also poor and jobless, said Martens.

Upon arrival, the women were informed that they must pay off a debt of between $12 000 and $15 000.

According to the Institute for Security Studies, in Pretoria, as many as 500 organised crime groups operate in South Africa.

These included Nigerian gangs who operate mainly in Malawi, Zambia and South Africa.

Such gangs also traffic Mozambican women to South Africa, where they were sold as "wives" to mine workers in Johannesburg.

Effectively, the women become sex slaves for those who buy them and also provide unpaid domestic labour, said the IOM.

And children find themselves caught up in the trade. Only a fortunate few were given refuge in safe houses in South Africa. - Sapa-IPS