Any type of trafficking in persons may equally involve children who are trafficked, domestically or internationally, for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced labour, removal of organs et cetera.  Child trafficking may also take the form of forced marriages, fraudulent adoptions, and organised begging. 

Evidence of child trafficking occurring in Australia is very limited and often contentious, with official sources, academic research, and advocacy groups disagreeing about the labelling of certain phenomena and individual cases as child trafficking.  This website documents the available information relating to trafficking in children in Australia.  Much of that information relates to the prostitution of Australian children, while there are little to no reports about trafficking in foreign children into Australia. In recent years, there have also been allegations about the trafficking of children through Australia’s inter-country adoption system. 

Child Prostitution in Australia

Several reports published in the 1990s explore the topic of child prostitution in Australia though none of them discuss child trafficking in significant detail.[1]  By and large, the literature reveals that there is a considerable number of children who have been involved in or subjected to commercial sexual activities, such as selling sex in return for some benefit to themselves or a third party.  These reports suggest that child prostitution is mostly an opportunistic activity engaged in by children who require food, shelter, clothes or drugs, rather than an organised activity aimed at exploiting children systematically.[2]  This would support the view that trafficking in children for the purpose of prostitution is not a widespread phenomenon in Australia, but this should not lead to the presumption that such trafficking does not exist. 

Cases Indicative of Child Trafficking

The Australian Government’s Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery reported that five children were referred to the Support for Trafficked People Program in the 2014-15 financial year.[3]  This number could potentially be linked to an increasing number of investigations into forced marriage[4] that followed the introduction of a new ‘forced marriage’ offence in March 2013.[5]

While several reported cases allude to situations that may be indicative of child trafficking there is, to this day, only one confirmed case involving charges under Australia’s federal child trafficking offences.  It is difficult to say with certainty whether all of the following cases fulfil all the criteria of trafficking in children, and in some cases uncertainties about the exact age of the victim may have prevented authorities from pursuing child trafficking charges.  Nevertheless, these cases illustrate situations and circumstances that may be seen as child trafficking in a non-technical sense. 

R v KAK [2013] QCA 10 (Operation Juliet Ostrich)
Offending: c2003–September 2011

The first case involving charges relating to trafficking in children came before the courts in Brisbane in 2012-13: R v KAK [2013] QCA 10.  Due to the mother-child relationship between the victim and one of the traffickers, much of the information about this case has been suppressed and only sketchy details have been reported in the media.  Based on these sources, the case involves a 12-year old girl who was sexually exploited in Runcorn, Qld, by her mother and her mother’s partner.  It appears that the girl was brought into Australia from Southeast Asia and forced to engage in commercial sex work and participate in the production of child pornography.  Two men in their 60s, believed to have been clients abusing the girl, have also been arrested.[6]  On September 25, 2012, the child’s mother, Ms PK, pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking in children contrary to s 271.4(1) of the Criminal Code (Cth). On 16 April 2013, she also pleaded guilty to 19 other charges under the Queensland Criminal Code.  Ms K was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.  Upon appeal, this was reduced to seven years imprisonment, with a non-parole period of three years and six months.[7]  In 2014, Ms K’s de-facto partner was given a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment for offences under State law.[8]

Puongthong Simaplee
Date/period of incident: 2001

The highly publicised case of the late Ms Puongthong Simaplee, a Thai national, illustrates the confusion and lack of understanding surrounding cases of trafficked children.  Ms Simaplee was found in a Sydney brothel at the age of 27 before she was brought to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre where she died three days later.  Ms Simaplee arrived at Villawood severely emancipated, suffering from an eye infection, hepatitis C, possible pneumonia, as well a heroin addiction.  She had earlier told immigration officers that she has been trafficked into Australia around the age of 12 and had engaged in sex work almost continuously since.[9]  This account was, however, disputed by several sources.[10]

JC (Operation Papertiger)
Date/period of incident: 1995

According to some accounts, Ms JC was trafficked to Australia in 1995.  It appears that she left in the belief she would be working as a nanny in Australia, but was forced to work in a brothel at that time.  Newspaper reports suggest she was 13 years old when she arrived in Australia.  Her traffickers told her that she owed them a debt of AUD 35,000 that she had to repay by engaging in sex work.  Ten days into her work at a brothel in Sydney she was found by immigration officials during a routine inspection.  No police investigation was carried out against the traffickers and Australia did not have specific trafficking offences at that time.  The Royal Thai Police, however, arrested three men in relation to this case.  These men were convicted in Thailand and sentenced to up to 19 years in gaol.  Ms JC later returned to Thailand and, in April 2007, she received compensation from the NSW Victims Compensation Tribunal.[11]

Child Trafficking and Inter-Country Adoption

In exploring the topic of child trafficking and inter-country adoption, many uncertainties remain about where criminality amounting to trafficking begins, which makes it difficult to assess the level and patterns of this crime in Australia.  A distinction has been drawn between ‘trafficking for adoption purposes’, which refers to practices that may be considered illegal adoptions, and ‘trafficking of children through adoption for exploitation purposes’, explained as practices of trafficking via the inter-country adoption system for exploitative purposes.[12]  According to the Implementation and Operation of the 1993 Hague Inter-country Adoption Convention: Guide to Good Practice,trafficking in this context refers to the ‘payment of money or other compensation to facilitate the illegal movement of children for the purposes of illegal adoption or other forms of exploitation’.[13]  The Protocol for Responding to Allegations of Child Trafficking in Inter-country Adoption, published by the Attorney-General’s Department, describes some circumstances which might give rise to suspicions about child trafficking, listing ‘concerns about the identity and documentation relating to a child, the circumstances relating to the relinquishment or abandonment of a child, and/or undue influence or inducements relating to the consents in the adoption process.’[14]

Australian cases and experiences

In Australia, several cases involving adoptions from India and Ethiopia brought the topic of child trafficking through inter-country adoption systems to greater public attention in recent years.  It is not possible to make generalisations from the very limited information, but the following cases point to some of the concerns over—and possible abuse of—inter-country adoptions.[15]

In August 2008, an investigation by Time magazine into adoptions in India revealed a racket in which children were kidnapped off the streets and sold to local agencies that changed their identities and arranged their adoptions to other countries, including Australia.  The scam was originally uncovered and reported in the Indian media when, in 2005, police in Chennai arrested members of the gang and linked them to an orphanage called Malaysian Social Services (MSS).  Indian police revealed that MSS staff would rename children and fabricate histories, including photos of fake mothers.  During a raid of MSS premises, police found files that held the pictures of a girl who had been sent to Australia in 2000.  These details were matched to a missing-persons case report of a small child who was allegedly abducted from outside her family home in Chennai.  She was subsequently given a new name, a new biography, and adopted to a Queensland couple.[16]  MSS has also been surrounded by allegations of other suspect dealings since that time.  When an Indian court found MSS to be lying about claims that a child was abandoned, the central adoption authority in Western Australia cancelled this adoption and ceased all dealings with MSS, though other states continued to adopt through this agency. In 1999, MSS’ licence was temporarily suspended amid further accusations of stolen children.[17]  The federal Attorney-General stated in 2008 that Australia no longer deals with MSS.[18]

Another case involving Indian children that emerged in 2008 concerned a Canberra family who in 1997 adopted a boy and a girl through Madras Social Service Guild (MASOS).  The family was told that the siblings were put up for adoption, as their ‘terminally ill parents’ were unable to take care of them.  In March 2006, the family came across news reports of an adoption racket in Chennai that involved MASOS employees.  This led the family to mount a private investigation into the origins of their adopted children.  It was later confirmed that the children’s father had forged his wife’s signature and sold the children to MASOS for 500 rupees (c AUD 50).  MASOS had its inter-country adoption license suspended in 1999 after it was revealed that the agency had been implicated in child trafficking, though the agency was later re-licensed.[19]

In late 2009 and early 2010, the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent TVprogram revealed similar concerns about adoptions from Ethiopia,[20] which led to a temporary suspension of adoptions from Ethiopia.  While the Australian Government stressed that it was ‘not aware of any allegations of child trafficking in the program’, there were concerns at the time that demands by the Ethiopian Government to tie adoption programs to the payment of financial aid and other development assistance would contravene obligations under The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption.[21]  While the suspension was lifted in April 2010 following a review and site visits, concerns remained over improper financial profits.[22]  In March 2010, the ABC published a further investigative piece, reporting that adoptive parents had complained about malpractice in the Ethiopian adoption program and about the fact that the Government was slow to act and failed to fully investigate serious allegations.[23] 

In 2010, the UQ Human Trafficking Working Group conducted a comprehensive research project on the topic of child trafficking and inter-country adoptions in Australia.  To read the full report, click here [pdf].


[1] See, for example, FaHCSIA, Tomorrow’s Children: Australia’s National Plan of Action Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (2000); Child Wise, Speaking for Themselves: Voices of Young People involved in Commercial Sexual Activity in Australia (2004); ECPAT Australia, Youth For Sale: ECPAT Australia’s National Inquiry into the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Young People in Australia (1998).
[2] ECPAT Australia, Youth For Sale (1998) 11–12.
[3] Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery, Trafficking in Persons: The Australian Government’s Response 1 July 2014–30 June 2015 (2015) 1, 34.
[4] Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery, Trafficking in Persons: The Australian Government’s Response 1 July 2014–30 June 2015 (2015) 9, 24.
[5] Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-Like Practices and People Trafficking) Bill 2012 (Cth); Criminal Code (Cth) s 270.7B.
[6] J Owens, ‘Child held for eight years as sex slave’, The Australian, 18 Nov 2011, 5
[7] R v KAK [2013] QCA 310, 319.
[8] Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery, Trafficking in Persons: The Australian Government’s Response 1 July 2014–30 June 2015 (2015) 93.
[9] L Lamont, ‘Sold at 12: Nightmare ends in death’, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney), 13 Mar 2003, 7; E Wynhausen, ‘Coroner in call for action on sex slaves’, The Australian, 25 Apr 2003, 5.
[10] E Jeffreys, ‘Truth and visas will set Asian sex workers free’, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney), 4 Apr 2008, 15; K Maltzahn, Trafficked (2008) 64.
[11] N Craig, ‘Sex slave victim wins abuse claim’, The Age (Melbourne), 29 May 2007, 4; ABC Radio National, ‘Tribunal pays compensation to sex trafficking victim’, PM, 29 May 2007 (S Donovan); K Maltzahn, Trafficked (2008) 41–44, 65.
[12] International Social Services & International Reference Centre, Preventing Abuse and Trafficking, Fact Sheet No 52 (Jan 2008).
[13] Hague Conference on Private International Law, The Implementation and Operation of the 1993 Hague Intercountry Adoption Convention: Guide to Good Practice – Guide No 1 (2008) 33.
[14] Attorney-General’s Department, Protocol for Responding to Allegations of Child Trafficking in Intercountry: Information to Assist Adoptive Families and Adoptees Adoption (2010) 1.
[15] For further details see, S Clair, Child Trafficking and Australia’s Inter-country Adoption System (2012).
[16] R Callinan, ‘Stolen Children’ (1 Sep 2009) Issue 34, Time International (South Pacific ed), 42–47; J Lyons, ‘Couples Sent Stolen Children by Indian Adoption Agency’, The Australian, 23 Aug 2008.
[17] S Parnell, ‘Cover-up Claim over 'Stolen' Child's Adoption’, The Australian, 27 Aug 2008, 3; M McKenna, ‘Warning on Suspect Indian Adoption Agency Ignored’, The Australian,3 Oct 2008, 6.
[18] J Lyons, ‘Couples Sent Stolen Children by Indian Adoption Agency’, The Australian, 23 Aug 2008.
[19] G Mohan, ‘Family Reunion’, The Indian Express (New Delhi), 14 Dec 2008; J Rollings, ‘Sold into Prosperity’, The Australian, 26 Aug 2008, 15; J Hand, ‘Stolen Babies’ Adoption Racket’, The Canberra Times (Canberra), 24 Aug 2008, 3.
[20] ABC Television, ‘Fly Away Children’, Foreign Correspondent, 15 Sep 2009 (A Geoghegan); ABC Television, ‘Fly Away Home’, Foreign Correspondent, 2 Mar 2010 (M A Jolley).
[21] The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption opened for signature 29 May 1993, 32 ILM 1134 (entered into force 1 May 1995); ‘Australia Suspends Adoptions from Ethiopia’, ABC News, 28 Dec 2009.
[22] Attorney-General’s Department, Intercountry Adoption Branch, Ethiopia Review – Executive Summary (5 Mar 2010) 1, 2.
[23] C White, ‘Australians Caught in Ethiopian Adoption Nightmare’ ABC News, 16 Mar 2010.