Slow justice is black mark on Maltese fight against human trafficking

US State Department trafficking report flags court delays and fraudulent labour practices as key concerns to Malta’s human trafficking efforts

Images from a 2019 anti-trafficking awareness campaign
Images from a 2019 anti-trafficking awareness campaign

Fraudulent labour recruitment in Malta remained a significant concern for the US State Department, as flagged in its annual Trafficking in People report for 2022.

The report points to illegal recruitment fees, the nature of work permits, and a lack of oversight on massage parlours as areas of concern in Malta’s labour market vis-a-vis human trafficking.

In 2021, Malta’s national employment authority reportedly conducted 1,400 routine inspections on employers, with a focus on employment contracts and basic employment conditions.

But government did not report on whether labour inspectors received specialised training to identify trafficking victims, identified any trafficking victims, or referred any cases for investigation.

Additionally, the US State Department noted that Malta’s employment laws did not allow workers to be charged recruitment fees by employment or recruitment agencies. “However, this practice continued to occur, and the government did not report effective law enforcement measures taken to deter agencies from continuing the practice.”

MaltaToday had revealed last year that recruitment agencies operating for local food delivery companies had been taking a 50% cut from couriers’ wages, while charging recruitment fees of several thousand euro.

The report added to fraudulent labour recruitment would also take the form of traffickers replacing the originally-signed contract with a less favourable one when the worker arrives in Malta.

Sometimes, traffickers would force victims to perform a completely different job than what was agreed upon, or even confiscate the passports of victims upon arrival.

The precarious position of foreign workers and asylum-seekers was made worse by the fact that they cannot leave their employers without prior government permission. This is because work permits are tied to a specific employer, which could increase their vulnerability to trafficking.

GRETA and NGOs had reported a lack of oversight and regulation on the licensing of massage parlours, which had a higher likelihood of indicators of sex trafficking.

Indeed, GRETA had already relayed the concerns of civil society that police did not proactively identify trafficking victims in massage parlours.

Prosecution and investigation

The report notes that human trafficking investigations decreased in 2022 compared to the previous year, while pointing to a lack of coordination among ministries.

For the 2021 period, government did not report prosecuting or convicting any traffickers – also marking a decrease compared to the year prior.

The US State Department remarked on the 17-year delay of a trial against a former police officer who had been accused of, and eventually admitted to, the facilitation of sex trafficking.

An investigation was first initiated in 2004 against a former police officer who had allegedly acted as an accomplice to a convicted sex trafficker by falsifying visa documents. He admitted to procuring a victim, but was eventually acquitted in June 2021.

This concern reflects what had been flagged by the Council of Europe’s expert group on human trafficking (GRETA). The report had urged the Maltese authorities to ensure that human trafficking cases lead to effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions.

More so, trafficking convictions continued to get overturned due to technicalities. In February 2022 a judge ruled that a Balzan brothel-owner’s case had to be re-heard due to a technical flaw in the proceedings.

A month earlier, the courts handed a suspended sentence on what the US State Department described as an “alleged case of forced labour”. A 39-year-old Maltese woman kept another woman locked in a tiny room where should would assemble Playmobil dolls that could then be sold on to the company’s factory. The victim was held in squalid conditions, surrounded by dog faeces and forced to use a bucket as a toilet.

Victim identification

According to the report, Aġenzija Appoġġ identified 18 potential foreign trafficking victims in 2021. From the victims identified, 11 were victims of labour trafficking, including four victims of domestic servitude and one victim of forced criminality.

Five others were identified as victims of sex trafficking, and two were victims of both sex and labour trafficking. Two of the potential victims were male, while 16 were female. Most victims originated from the Philippines.

For comparison, only six potential trafficking victims were identified in 2020, while 11 were identified in 2019. However, total identifications in 2021 were still fewer than the 24 found in 2018, 30 in 2017, and 35 in 2016.


Approximately 830 undocumented migrants arrived in Malta in 2021, marking a significant decrease compared with 2,300 in 2020 and 3,100 in 2019.

Migrants arriving to Malta are generally placed in one of the four government-run detention centres.

The report points to a new government policy which, according to civil society, prevented asylum-seekers from Bangladesh from obtaining a work permit for nine months, in turn increasing their vulnerability to trafficking.

Additionally, the US State Department said that the approximately 9,000 refugees and 4,000 asylum-seekers residing in Malta are vulnerable to trafficking in the country’s informal labour market, including within the construction, hospitality and domestic work sectors.

Trafficking profile

In a more general profile of Malta’s trafficking situation, the US state department identified that sex traffickers tend to exploit foreign national and Maltese women and children, while labour traffickers exploit foreign men and women.

Labour trafficking victims largely originate from China, Eastern Europe, Central America and Southeast Asia, with increasing numbers from the Philippines.

Several other women populations in Malta are highly vulnerable to trafficking. These include women from Southeast Asia working as domestic workers, foreign women working in massage parlours, and women from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine working in nightclubs.