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Setting the captives free

30 September 2020

Setting the captives free

Salvo Trevor Russell at helm of Australia’s fight against modern slavery

Words Simone Worthing

“I like to think that policing is a calling for me as part of my faith,” said Detective Sergeant Trevor Russell, who oversees the Human Trafficking Team for the Southern Command of the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

“Supporting the vulnerable and giving back to society are certainly compatible with Christianity and strike a definite chord with the Salvos.”

Trevor, who attends the Salvos in Melbourne with his parents and two daughters – when work allows – also sees these values in his colleagues, irrespective of their personal beliefs.

“We welcome people from all walks of life and protect those who are at their lowest ebb,” he said. “Our team aims to make a positive contribution to society and help those in difficulty.”


There are an estimated 21 million to 45 million people trapped in some form of slavery today. It’s sometimes called ‘modern-day slavery’ and sometimes ‘human trafficking’. At all times it is slavery at its core.

Human trafficking is a horrendous global crime that exploits and enslaves millions of people around the world and it exists in every country of the world – including Australia.

Trevor and his highly skilled team work across Victoria and Tasmania as part of the National Human Trafficking Taskforce. They are responsible for raising awareness of human trafficking, making sure victims in extremely vulnerable situations receive the assistance they need, and working with AFP and state police colleagues around the country investigating this Commonwealth offence (Divisions 270 and 271 of the Criminal Code).

Many of these investigative operations extend internationally – building relationships with other police agencies and governments around the world to work on crimes including drug offences and money laundering, as well as human trafficking.

A person not being able to access their passport is a key indicator of human trafficking.

“Modern-day slavery undertakes many forms and can include forced marriage, domestic servitude, sexual servitude, child labour, debt bondage and organ trafficking,” Trevor explained.

“Human trafficking is, though, different from people smuggling. In trafficking, people profit from the forced exploitation of people; in smuggling, they profit from their movement.”

The AFP also maintains close working relationships with professional bodies, charity groups and non-government organisations, including the Salvos, who run Australia’s only safe house for victims of human trafficking in Sydney.

The Australian Red Cross is contracted by the Department of Human Services (DHS) to run the Support for Trafficked People Program (STPP) – which responds to the needs of victims of this crime. These include housing, daily living needs, legal assistance, immigration support, medical care and general welfare.

“The most common type of human trafficking reports we have been seeing over the past few years are those of forced marriage,” said Trevor. “In the AFP reports from 2018-2019, they represent around 42 per cent of referrals.

“We are open to receiving reports from any area of human trafficking and believe that there is a gross under-reporting of these offences.

“For example, we don’t get a lot of reports around sexual servitude and slavery. We know victims are vulnerable, can be fearful, concerned about engaging with police and often lack full understanding of their rights and the support available to them. If people are feeling threatened, coerced, deceived or unable to leave, the potential is that an offence has occurred.

“There are many reasons these crimes are under-reported, with one of the major ones being the power imbalance between perpetrator and victims.”

Trevor emphasised that, although a police organisation traditionally stands for prosecutions, in human trafficking, disruption and prevention of offences is a focus area for the taskforce.

“We are still keen, though, to hold people to account who are committing these offences,” he explained. “We are hugely reliant on victims of crime to come forward and make complaints so we can take action, break the cycle and get help for victims.” (See box, below, on where to get help.)

A police officer for almost 20 years, Trevor finds his role in fighting human trafficking challenging but incredibly rewarding.

“There is not a lot of knowledge in Australia around what human trafficking is, and how it fits with the AFP and other organisations,” he said. “Until I worked in this taskforce, I was not aware of the breadth of offences under the Commonwealth Criminal Code.”


The pandemic has impacted different areas of human trafficking in various ways.

“In the area of forced marriage and young girls being taken offshore for this purpose, some of the immediate threats have dissipated due to issues around international flights and travel,” Trevor explained.

“Regarding sexual servitude, it’s definitely still there but has been driven underground due to the closure of legal brothels and adult entertainment venues.

“The exploitation is still happening, just in different locations. New victims also haven’t been brought into the country and others are unable to escape from Australia. Those most vulnerable are struggling.”


After a successful six-month pilot, the AFP will soon be launching Project Skywarp, a partnership with Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA), with the generous support of Sydney Airport.

This project is aimed at reaching passengers at Australia’s busiest airport through custom-designed posters across bathrooms in the domestic and international terminals, as well as on key digital screens, to encourage them to learn more about forced marriage. This includes helping people to understand that forcing someone into a non-consensual marriage is against the law in Australia. It also informs how to report information to the AFP, and encourages referrals to support services available through Anti- Slavery Australia’s My Blue Sky website.

“We expect that this project will be rolled out nationally,” said Trevor. “We are also looking into assisting drivers of different companies to become more aware of the signs of human trafficking and how to report possible victims. This kind of training has had successful outcomes in other areas.”



In an emergency, call 000 or your local police.

For support services –



The AFP website –

AFP National Hotline – 1800 123 400

In the case of suspected forced marriage – school counsellors, social workers, teachers


Stopped at the border

A school counsellor was recently contacted by a person concerned that a female friend was being forced into marriage.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) met with the girl, identified as a potential victim of human trafficking, who expressed her fears of forced marriage.

This girl was cognitively impaired, and the AFP was concerned that she could be subject to coercion, and also being removed for marriage offshore.

She was offered support under the Support for Trafficked People Program and assured assistance was available regardless of whether or not she made a statement to police.

Her details were put on an airport watch list. An alert went off at an airport when she and a male companion were about to leave Australia. The AFP spoke to her, alone, and she disclosed that she was travelling to a marriage she didn’t want.

Her male companion denied any know-ledge of the marriage, although a wedding dress and rings were found in his luggage.

The young person was given the option not to travel that day, which she accepted. Ongoing support was provided, which included arranging guardianship that enabled her to be removed from an unsafe situation.

“This is an example of disrupting an offence before it occurs and giving someone in an unbalanced power situation an option,” said Detective Sergeant Trevor Russell who leads the Human Trafficking Team, Southern Command.

“There are also times when, with the consent of the young person, we speak to the family and explain that forced marriage is contrary to the laws of Australia – and this is enough for them.

“This puts into context some of the work we do. It doesn't always have to include lights, sirens and handcuffs!"


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