Police have arrested 26 Thai women and four alleged handlers at a "gentleman's club" in downtown Durban and at another premises in Pinetown. They believe the clubs were brothels involved in human trafficking - and now detectives are looking for witnesses.

The Sunday Tribune can reveal that police have gathered data including photographs, names, car registrations and phone numbers of the clubs' clientele, which is said to include many, high-profile individuals.

After the raid on After Dark, in Cato Street, and its subsequent closure, Durban Organised Crime Unit head Supt Willie Louw urged clients to come forward or face the consequences.

"We are saying to these guys, 'Come forward and assist us in our investigations, or risk being embarrassed by us coming to question you in your home or your work place'. Most of these guys are married. The place is very popular and was masquerading as a gentleman's club," he said.

Police said the women arrested on Friday night included girls in their early teens. Police also confiscated cash found on the premises.

Louw said they were hot on the heels of the clubs' kingpins and expected to make further arrests soon.

The raid was part of an ongoing investigation by the local SAPS in conjunction with its national counterparts and the department of home affairs.

Other police units and the Metro Police were also involved in the swoop.

Senior officials from the national SAPS office and home affairs were in Durban on Saturday interviewing the women. A Home Affairs official involved in the raid said he was concerned about the "new trend" of young girls working in brothels.

"Those girls were much younger than the ones we usually find in such situations. The ages on their passports are false because they state that these girls are in their 20s when, in fact, they are younger.

"This is done to ensure they get visas. Thai women are targeted by these syndicates because of the poverty in their home country. The prospect of greener pastures is hard to refuse. When here, they are at the mercy of their masters," he said.

When the police swooped on the Cato Street venue, they also established that renovations were under way for seven additional rooms. The building had 10 rooms where the women allegedly entertained clients.

Louw said human trafficking was a huge problem worldwide.

"We also have records that show some of these girls saw up to seven men a day at a rate of R350 for a session. The rooms were clean and we found condoms in some of them."

Some patrons who arrived at their favourite nightspot on Friday were greeted by police and quickly left in embarrassment.

Officials involved in the raid said international crime syndicates recruited women under the pretext they would be employed in the hospitality industry as waitresses or as nannies.

Clothes, airline tickets and visas are arranged and the girls leave for their destination, where they are then sold into sexual slavery and have their passports confiscated.

Those arrested are being held in police cells around Durban. They are due to appear in court on Monday when the case is expected to be postponed for further investigations.

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons - to which South Africa is a signatory - defines trafficking as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force, for the purpose of exploitation".

Exploitation is defined as "prostitution, forced labour or services, slavery or the removal of organs".

The International Organisation for Migration says women travel to South Africa from as far as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria Russia and China.

The organisation estimates the human trafficking industry earns syndicates about R50-billion a year.

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