From Russia for Love

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 Updated:

MELBOURNE — They told Anna Vladimirovna that if she tried to escape, “things” could happen to her son and family back in the Ukraine.

“We were treated like slaves,” the 32-year-old prostitute says. “I was scared that my sister and my son may have been hurt badly if I caused any problems.”

The heat didn’t end there. The Russian pimps continually checked on her and the three other Ukrainian prostitutes. What were they doing? Were they all at the house? Were they going out?

Anna was told she was a dead soul. Her visa and passport would not be renewed. She was a dead person as far as government authorities were concerned.

Terrified and silenced by the Russian mafia, Anna left Melbourne in November last year, her dream of life-long financial security shattered.

The criminal Ukrainian group that had brought her here with false documents and a rosy picture of life in Melbourne’s sex industry is still operating.

As she left, she told migration officials that more girls were on their way from Russia. Police believe that up to 50 women from the Ukraine and Russia were brought to Melbourne in the past year as sex workers or, quite legally, as mail order brides.

Anna is part of a flourishing international bazaar run by organised criminals who select naive and desperately poor women, and turn them into commodities by brokering them into the sex industries of affluent countries. Many find themselves trapped by dodgy contracts, violence, and coercive conditions.

As will be seen, Anna’s story shows that even a legal sex industry, with licensed brothels regulated by state laws, can easily be infiltrated by the tentacles of organised criminal groups. And the tentacles of the Russian mafia group that snared Anna Vladimirovna are long: from the Ukraine to the Immigration detention centre in Maidstone and beyond.

Anna’s long journey began, in late 1996, over a coffee in her home town, an ancient administrative centre in the thickly forested north-west region of the Ukraine. Dwelling on life’s turns, she told a girlfriend that times were tough since she divorced her husband, a Russian army engineer, a year earlier. She had returned to college, but with a 10-year-old son and an average wage under the poverty line, making ends meet was very difficult.

Her friend said she knew someone in Melbourne — in Australia — who might be able to help. She would have to work as prostitute but it was all legal, above board.

“I said I would have to go away and think about it. I had never done anything like it before,” she recalls saying. “I decided that I would have to do it. I had no option.”

Soon after, she met Sergei, the racket’s broker, trafficker and ringleader, in a high-security flat in Kiev, 90 kilometres from the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Police confirmed that Sergei, an Australian citizen, lives in Melbourne and travels regularly to the Ukraine, organising girls to work as prostitutes in Australia.

Anna, a bubbly, vivacious and normally happy-go-lucky woman, was tempted to go and yet uncertain. She says: “He painted a very rosy picture. He said it would be legal, only seven hours a day and that we would have free days as well.” But she hesitated. Went home to think. Her parents would be mortified. She was scared, but had to support her son. She was told she could earn up to $20,000 — enough to set up her whole family. In the Ukraine, her income was $30 a month. Eventually, she told her sister she was going.

The next step was the documentation. According to Anna, Sergei took care of everything. The official story would be that she was a qualified dancer with the Ministry of Culture and was visiting Melbourne for a week as part of a dance troupe. In reality, she would stay a year. A false work book and travel documents were arranged.

The ringleader then organised his insurance policy. “He kept my old work book. This was the start of his control over us,” Anna says. “He also said he needed to keep the addresses and telephone number of my sister and also details of my parents.”

Anna and three other girls left for Melbourne in June, owing $5000 each in airfares and costs she describes as “bribes and kickbacks.”

They were met at Melbourne Airport by Dmitry and Pavel, the pimps. Immediately, they were taken to a hotel in St Kilda. They were fed and given their first warning: we have criminal contacts in Kiev and Moscow who will take care of anyone who causes a problem.

“We were very intimidated and started to wonder what we had let ourselves in for,” Anna recalls.

Despite complaining they needed a rest, they had to see clients straight away. Their passports were taken from them. “In the Ukraine we were told we would work seven hours a day and would earn 25 per cent of the money we made. After our arrival we were told that we had to repay the $5000 first and would only get five per cent until that was paid off.”

Three weeks after arriving, the four girls were moved from the hotel into a house in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs. The pimps drove them to and from brothels and checked on them incessantly. The girls spoke little English, had little knowledge of Australia and were too scared to go to the police.

Anna told investigators she had worked at the Candy Club in Richmond, where she would have noticed the heavy security grill on the windows, and the Manhattan Terrace, a restored double storey Victorian terrace in Carlton that is marred by mirrored doors. Managers at both brothels told the Sunday Age they couldn’t remember her and disputed she had ever worked for them.

When one of the Ukrainian women moved out to be with a boyfriend, the pimps were ropeable. Anna says one of them took out his anger on the remaining three girls.

At about the same time, she was accused of being a poor earner and told to lift her game. She later told investigators, almost apologetically, that she probably hadn’t made as much money as the others because she was the oldest. She claimed at times she was made to work up to 24 hours.

In early August, the women were moved into a unit at the Warwick Beach Side Apartments in Beaconsfield Parade, a garish 1960’s style apartment block near the heart of St. Kilda’s night life. Residents say the women spoke no English and kept to themselves. They were very quiet.

In mid-September, Anna and the other women were picked up by Immigration Department officers in a raid at the apartment. “One of the girls told me to run, but I had nowhere to run to,” she says. “I was in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language and was without my passport.”

She was held behind the high barbed wire fence of the Immigration Department’s detention centre in Maidstone. As it turned out, what the fence kept out, phone lines allowed in.

Anna’s main concern was that Sergei would blame the girls for destroying his business and visit their families when in the Ukraine. She applied for refugee status but in early October was rejected by the Immigration Department. With the help of Refugee Advice and Casework Service in St. Kilda, Anna lodged an application with the Refugee Review Tribunal, citing fear of criminal gangs in the Ukraine were she to return home.

At the same time, she cooperated with both police and Immigration Department inquiries. Police say she was apprehensive at first, but after several meetings, was keen to cooperate. Police offered her a justice visa, which would enable her to stay in Australia as a witness.

Just days before her case was due before the Refugee Review Tribunal, Anna Vladimirovna put up the shutters. Her cooperative mood turned to total non-cooperation. She withdrew her case; withdrew from dealing with the police and withdrew from talks with the Immigration Department.

The case worker assisting her refugee application, Martin Clutterbuck, says: “I received a phone call out of the blue that she wanted to withdraw her application. It was two days before the hearing. I was surprised. I asked her about the police investigation and she said, ‘I don’t want to cooperate with anyone any more, it’s becoming too dangerous for me.’”

Detective senior constable Michael Wholohan, of the gaming and vice squad, says Anna and two of the other Ukrainian women at first were willing to make statements. All later changed their minds.

Anna was offered a justice visa to stay as a witness. “After a couple of days of thinking about that she declined the offer and was quite adament she wished to return,” he says. “The second time I spoke to her personality was a little different; she wasn’t as happy and as bubbly as the first time I met her. She had had communication with people from outside the detention centre — as to what transpired, I don’t know. But basically, without a complainant, I had nothing.”

Naively, she said she wanted to go via Hawaii, so she could have a holiday. She was put on a plane to the Ukraine in mid-November. Before she left she complained that the few thousand dollars she had managed to save in three months of work was snaffled by the pimps after her arrest.

It is assumed, but not known, that she headed back to her home town, a full circle into an uncertain future.

Last year, the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said Ukraine was in serious economic crisis. Shrinking revenue had left millions of employees unpaid for months. Women were more likely to be laid off and made up 70 per cent of all those registered as unemployed, and up to 90 per cent of the newly unemployed. Violence against women was pervasive. Sexual trafficking was not addressed by the government. “The authorities do not prosecute men for engaging in the explosively growing sector of sexually exploitative work.”

A recent report by the environmental and human rights group, Global Survival Network, says privatisation in Russia and the former Soviet republics had resulted in the feminisation of poverty and that mafia groups were trafficking tens of thousands of women from the region each year.

The story of Anna Vladimirovna (a fictitious name created to protect the woman’s privacy and safety) is based on transcripts of interviews she gave to the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Melbourne and to Australian police, as well as the recollections of those who met her in Australia. The names of the Russian mafia figure and pimps were changed for legal reasons, as they had not been charged with any offense at the time of publication.

Migrants lured by sex ring

Foreign prostitutes in Australia, particularly those who become illegal immigrants, have found themselves bound by massive debts, impossible contracts and limits on their freedom.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs has had complaints from women about long shifts, limited food and medical care, a lack of choice in customers and having to have unprotected sex.

Some say they their organisers had imposed debts of between $40,000 and $50,000 on them, which they have had to work off through sex. In one case recently before the Immigration Review Tribunal, a Thai woman claimed she had to see 500 clients before receiving any money.

Insight revealed in the Sunday Age that an international crime ring with links to Russian mafia groups was bringing in women to work in some of Melbourne’s legal brothels.

One of the women claimed that she was treated like a sex slave. Her passport was withheld and she was told her family, including 10-year-old son, would be at risk if she tried to escape.

The shadow attorney-general, Mr. Rob Hulls, yesterday called for an urgent inquiry into illegal immigrants working in legal brothels, which is licensed by the Prostitution Control Board. “The last thing Victorians want is for their state to be known as the sleaze capital of Australia,” he said.

Despite police confirming to The Age that illegal immigrants had worked in legal brothels, a spokeswoman for the Attorney-General, Mrs. Jan Wade, said yesterday that the office had not been told of any such problems.

The Prostitution Control Board, which has never cancelled a brothel’s license for employing illegal immigrants, refused to comment on whether it had ever used its power to refer matters to the police or the Immigration Department.

In the six months to January, 67 foreign prostitutes were deported from Australia. In the same period immigration officers found 25 illegal sex workers in Victoria.

The women, who often become illegal immigrants, usually find their passports and travel documents confiscated by criminal syndicates, making them feel powerless to complain.

Martin Clutterbuck, of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, says many women are caught in an impossible trap. Because of their illegal status, they too scared to approach the authorities that can help them.

Australian Federal Police agent Mr. Pat Meyers says few have the assertiveness or understanding to complain to official bodies. “When they do complain, the only person to whom they can complain is the person keeping them in servitude,” he says.

He says women usually are coaxed from impoverished village conditions in Asian countries with the promise of making big money in Australia, or eventually getting citizenship. Through ignorance, they commit themselves to owing amounts of up to $35,000. “They don’t necessarily know the airfare is $2000 to them, when you’ve got nothing, $2000 is as good as $35,000,” he says.

Their more sophisticated organisers arrange visas, ticketing and other arrangements. On arrival, they are picked up by an overseer. “Their choices to leave are limited — their passports and travel documents are effectively held by the overseer or person who is organising them, and they’re held on the basis they are still in debt to that person or persons. The girls simply make no progress in the repayment of the debt.”

For the crime bosses, the profits are huge and the risks relatively low because usually it is only the women who are caught and deported. Police say successful prosecutions depend on complaints by the women — an unlikely occurrence, given their circumstances.

Prostitutes caught in debt of servitude

An international criminal gang with links to the Russian mafia is luring Ukrainian women to work illegally as prostitutes in Victoria’s brothels.

The group, which is still operating, uses false travel documents and recruits vulnerable women with promises of big money and plenty of free time in Australia.

But after arriving, the women find they have to hand over most of their earnings, have their passports confiscated and are under regular surveillance by the group’s pimps.

A Ukrainian woman who was placed in legal brothels by the group last year claims the pimps treated her like a sex slave. She was told her family, including a 10-year-old son in the Ukraine, could be at risk if she tried to escape.

It is understood the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions is considering charging two gang members with offences under the Migration Act. This follows an investigation by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

Police would not reveal how many women were involved in the racket but say that up to 50 women from the Ukraine came to Melbourne in the past 12 months either as prostitutes or as potential wives under legal match-making schemes.

In the six months to January this year, immigration officers discovered 25 illegal sex workers in Victoria. Overall, 67 prostitutes were deported from Australia between July last year and January.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General, Mrs. Wade, denied illegal immigrants worked in Victoria’s regulated brothels. “It’s the illegal brothels where it’s happening,” she said.

But Gaming and vice squad detective Michael Wholohan confirmed illegal immigrants worked in the state’s regulated brothels, though more of them “end up in illegal brothels where they would be able to get work basically without any questions asked.”

Mr. Wholohan revealed police have launched a broad-ranging investigation into illegal immigrants in Victoria’s sex industry. He said the police inquiry would not target a particular group. Most of the prostitutes came from Asia or the former communist bloc countries of Europe.

The federal government believes international trafficking of women is highly organised — with networks of procurers, document forgers and providers, escorts, financiers, corrupt officials and brothel operators.

An information paper prepared for Justice Minister, Senator Vanstone, says authorities were becoming aware of increasing numbers of foreign women working as prostitutes in Australia.

The Victorian Government last year amended the Prostitution Control Act to allow for the cancellation of brothels’ licenses for breaches of the Migration Act. The legislation does not cover prostitutes or their associates.

The Prostitution Control Board, which monitors brothels and escort agencies, has not cancelled any licenses since last year’s amendment. The head of the board, Mr. John Baker-Smith, refused to discuss whether any matters ever had been referred to police or the Immigration Department.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Birnbauer was one of the first reporters to use Australia’s Freedom of Information laws, unearthing documents on potential nuclear power sites, and later, obtaining mortality rates for state hospitals. He is an investigative reporter and associate editor at one of Australia’s main quality newspapers, The Age. In 1993, he became a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University. In 1996, he shared a Walkley Award, Australia’s top journalism prize, for a narrative on the Port Arthur massacre, in which a gunman killed 35 people.

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