Divergent approaches to trafficking for sexual exploitation: Australia and Ireland

Strategic Insight 008/2023

Meagan Tyler and Ruth Breslin

13 April 2023

Divergent approaches to trafficking for sexual exploitation: Australia and Ireland

Human trafficking is an issue of international concern and a widespread human rights abuse. Sexual exploitation remains one of the primary purposes of trafficking, with women and girls overwhelmingly overrepresented. In the most recent UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 91 percent of all identified victims/survivors of this particularly heinous and multi-traumatic form of abuse were female.

There are differing approaches to address trafficking for sexual exploitation, even amongst states that are signatories to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol). These are often underpinned by divergent frameworks, at the domestic level, for understanding the sex industry, more generally. Here, the authors compare the examples of Ireland and Australia – both destination countries for sexual exploitation trafficking – and consider how differences in conceiving of the sex industry, as primarily a legitimate business or as a cause and consequence of gender inequality, can potentially affect approaches to trafficking.


Ireland has long been a destination country for trafficking. Identified victims are more than twice as likely to be female than male, and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form, with women from Africa featuring heavily amongst identified victims/survivors. Ireland has faced criticism over a number of years for its failures in victim identification – one estimate suggests that the true number of victims is up to 38 percent higher, while organisations working at the frontline with victims and survivors describe the official statistics as merely ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

In 2017, changes to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act effectively introduced what has become known as the Equality Model (or Nordic Model) to Ireland. This approach is a form of asymmetric decriminalisation which shifts the burden of criminality on to those who purchase sexual access or profit from the prostitution of others, while removing all legal sanctions against prostituted persons. Originating in Sweden, more than 20 years ago, this innovative approach has since been taken up in a number of other jurisdictions, with variations on the Equality Model operational in Finland, Iceland, Norway, Northern Ireland, Canada, France and Israel while legislative change is slated in Italy and Spain. In 2014, the European Parliament endorsed this as best practice policy for addressing the sex trade, recognising connections between prostitution and trafficking.

To date, the impact of the Equality Model in Ireland has been most clearly evident in the coordinated policing approach to the commercial sex trade. The policing response to both organised prostitution and trafficking is positioned within dedicated units co-located under the auspices of the Garda National Protective Service Bureau (GNPSB) – a body which is charged with tackling domestic and sexual violence crimes, typically of a gendered nature. This approach recognises as its starting point the inherent vulnerabilities experienced by those selling sex within a violent and exploitative trade and seeks to tackle demand as well as weaken the business model by focusing enforcement efforts on sex buyers and trade profiteers. It is in this context that Ireland secured its first sexual exploitation trafficking convictions in 2021, followed by a successful appeal that challenged the undue leniency of the perpetrators’ sentences.

It is also notable that within the broader policy landscape, the Equality Model has brought about a significant shift in the way that the sex trade is framed in Ireland. Prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation have since been connected to broader policy initiatives addressing violence against women and girls. As part of the recently-launched Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, prostitution is, for the first time in Ireland, formally recognised as a form of gender-based violence. The Strategy and its Implementation Plan are the first of their kind in Europe to address prostitution and trafficking under all four pillars of the Istanbul Convention – prevention, protection, prosecution and policy coordination.  This is in keeping with the clearly established broad consensus across the women’s sector in Ireland that the very existence of the sex trade is highly detrimental to the goal of achieving gender equality for all.


Like Ireland, Australia is a destination country for trafficking, including trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour but, increasingly, forced marriage (which shares some overlap with sexual exploitation). The profile of trafficking for sexual exploitation had been documented over the last two decades, with a particular emphasis on women from South East Asia, but there has been a recent decline in identified victims/survivors. However, also like Ireland, identification remains problematic and extensive reports from investigative journalists in 2022 suggest traffickers are using new methods to capitalise on gaps in migration regulation in order to evade authorities. In addition, it is possible that moves to decriminalise and deregulate the commercial sex trade in parts of Australia mean there is less intervention and therefore reduced points for the potential identification of trafficking.

For a variety of both practical and ideological reasons, the regulation of the sex trade has been seen as largely separate from trafficking for sexual exploitation in Australia. Firstly, while trafficking and modern slavery fall within the remit of the federal government, it is the states and territories that are responsible for legislation regarding prostitution. This has resulted in a patchwork of approaches, with little or no coordination. Older forms of criminalisation such as public order offences and state-regulated, legalised brothel prostitution are in operation in some states and territories but there is a trend towards total decriminalisation. This shift towards deregulation of the commercial sex industry frames sex work as a job like any other. This is unlike regulated or legalised models and there is no prohibition on pimping or on purchasing sexual access unlike the Equality Model.

Despite the noteworthy differences between the conflicting approaches across the country, none link trafficking for sexual exploitation to the broader and highly gendered demand for commercial sexual access or recognise the power dynamics that fuel both trafficking for sexual exploitation and the sex trade more generally.

In not acknowledging these connections, organisations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) argue Australia does not fully meet its obligations under the Palermo Protocol, particularly with regard to discouraging “the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking” (Article 9.5). Relatedly, trafficking for sexual exploitation is rarely linked, in any meaningful way, to overarching action plans to address violence against women and there are fewer accountability measures. This is in sharp contrast to Ireland, where the gendered and racialized nature of trafficking is recognised by the national rapporteur. Moreover, Australia has no national rapporteur on human trafficking at all.

Connecting sex trade policy and international approaches to trafficking 

It is clear there is room for improvement in identifying and supporting victims/survivors and pursuing convictions against traffickers in both Ireland and Australia.

What is less clear, is whether or not there is motivation to improve practice or carry through substantial reform in order to address such issues. The potential connection between seriously tackling trafficking for sexual exploitation and domestic policy on the sex trade is an area that certainly warrants further investigation from scholars and policy makers if we are to design more effective responses.

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Ruth Breslin is a Research Associate with SERP – the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme in the Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin www.serp.ie

The Azure Forum is a nonpartisan, independent research organisation. In all instances, the Azure Forum retains independence over its research and editorial discretion with respect to outputs, reports, and recommendations. The Azure Forum does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all author views should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).