Malta’s prostitution overhaul starts with war on trafficking

A framework to regularise prostitution will consider whether sex workers should be registered taxpayers, but before that the Maltese government has to get to terms with the island’s problematic status as a trafficking destination

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Matthew Vella
27 September 2017, 7:21am
'There is no recognisable exit, or support route, through which a prostitute can consciously decide to leave the sex trade' said Julia Portelli
'There is no recognisable exit, or support route, through which a prostitute can consciously decide to leave the sex trade' said Julia Portelli
One of the Labour government’s controversial reforms is taking place against a backdrop of resistance from feminist groups and conservative critics: the regulation of prostitution.

But the newly-elected parliamentary secretary at the helm of this tricky law is adamant that her starting point is “declaring war” on human trafficking in Malta.

Julia Farrugia Portelli, whose past career as a TV journalist and also editor of Illum gave her a glimpse into the life of sex workers whom she wrote about, says no law can take shape unless women in prostitution can make their way out of this life.

“There is no recognisable exit, or support route, through which a prostitute can consciously decide to leave the sex trade,” Farrugia Portelli says, explaining how she intends going about the reform. 

Prostitution is not itself illegal in Malta: specifically, it is loitering with intent that criminalises women selling sex on the streets, and then, living off the earnings of prostitution, the crime which pimps – if and when they are identified – can be charged with.

But since the early 2000s, the sex trade on the island has been ramping up. The proliferation of strip clubs, a bête noire of women’s rights advocates, has provided a sanitised form of titillation that now is the norm in Paceville. The dark side is that the spread of clubs and now massage parlours, employing mainly Eastern European and Asian women, is suspected of being linked to the trafficking industry.

The United States Department of State’s report on trafficking in persons has for the fifth consecutive year insisted that Malta “is a source and destination country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking”: it makes special mention of Chinese nationals working in massage parlours, and women from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine working in nightclubs as populations vulnerable to exploitation.

These are facts that Farrugia Portelli is aware of, which is why she is concerned that women and anyone else trafficked for sex must have a clear exit strategy and support from the State.

“I put myself in the shoes of a woman seeking an exit route, and I was amazed to find the lack of support available to people who want to leave prostitution. Where does one even start? There is a need of a recognisable helpline and online support for these women which is made known to them straight away. Even places like Dar Hosea, which is a day centre for prostitutes, lack the resources to be a round-the-clock shelter from which women can evade the grips of their pimps.”

Julia Farrugia Portelli (left) is handling the controversial reform, which she says must start with a 'war on trafficking'
Julia Farrugia Portelli (left) is handling the controversial reform, which she says must start with a 'war on trafficking'
Farrugia Portelli says her objective is to devise a structure that can provide a holistic programme through which women can exit prostitution and re-enter the labour market.

“Some considerations are about foreign prostitutes in Malta and whether giving them a new identity could protect their relatives from retribution by the people who trafficked them in the first place,” Farrugia Portelli says, whose inter-ministerial committee is at early stages of discussion on the framework.

“Some people have been in this business for 30 years. They know nothing else,” she says.

While Farrugia Portelli insists that any new rules on prostitution must involve a clampdown on human trafficking, she says it is impossible to ignore the reality of sex work in Malta.

As a naval outpost for the British empire, Valletta’s Strait Street was a red light district for thousands of whoring army and navy personnel, and whose misery today gets unnecessarily romanticised on TV soaps. After the 1970s, ‘the Gut’ was deserted of its boisterous guests. But prostitution in Malta today is less a shop window, and more of an online telephone directory, where thousands of listings can be found in escort directories on the web.

“Whatever moral outrage one might feel at this reality, it is something we can regulate. And if we don’t have a legal structure that can deal with trafficking, Malta’s place will simply remain in the shade,” Farrugia Portelli says.

“We want to improve greater access to sexual health services for sex workers. That in itself might require an appropriate register, and a discussion on registration could also lead to the question of whether they should also be legitimate taxpayers.”

This surely cannot be the easiest of reforms, especially with signs that the Nationalist Party will not tolerate any such “commercialisation of sex”.

Farrugia Portelli questions whether Malta should go for the so called Nordic Model, also known as the Swedish or abolitionist model: decriminalising those who are prostituted, giving them support services to exit, and making the act of buying sex a criminal offence, to reduce the demand that drives trafficking.

"A total ban will only send the abuse underground. A regulated market can give sex workers rights and legal framework"
“If the industry goes underground there might be greater dangers ahead. What solution is there from those who want a total ban? How can we prevent the trade from going underground?” Farrugia Portelli asks. As an example, she says that any prospective law would envisage protection of children from prostitution, and criminalise sex workers who carry out their trade in front of their own children, often the precursor to their own entry into prostitution.

“A total ban will only send the abuse underground. A regulated market can give sex workers rights and a legal framework that would also protect them against abuse and non-consensual sex, and a way out of the trade,” Farrugia Portelli says.

These reforms are of course, just the tip of the iceberg.

Malta is busy bolstering an anti-trafficking effort to improve its ‘tier 2’ status that the US Department of State’s TIP report says reflects the slow progress to reach minimum standards to eliminate trafficking.

For example, an inter-ministerial committee for implementing the national action plan on trafficking retains a ridiculous budget of just €20,000, which does not include government funds provided to agencies for victim support. The progress of trafficking prosecutions in court remains slow and hampered. A frequent turnover of vice unit investigators, means a lot of expertise gets lost along the way. And while over 1,150 inspections were made at workplaces, there is actually no government effort to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, the TIP report says.

Farrugia Portelli is aware of this reputation, which has Malta dubbed a “source and destination country” for trafficking, and vows to find out for herself how such a reputation remains intact. “I think it is easy to see why Malta has this dark side if we don’t implement a legal structure that can tackle trafficking and offer trafficked persons a safe way out.” 

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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.