“I went into a massage parlour in Malta, received a 20 minute rub that was nothing close to a professional quality massage and was then asked if I would like a “hand shake”. I said “OK” and shook the woman’s hand. She replied, “No, that’s not what I meant. It will cost extra.” I fled the business as fast as my tired legs could carry me,” a Facebook user who declined to give his name and locality for fear of being identified told Eve. His experience is not uncommon after the government removed the requirement for massage parlours to obtain a licence in 2016. Residents, especially newcomers to Malta, must rely on references on social networks to seek out non-dodgy massage.

This deregulation not only leaves clients with various medical conditions vulnerable to damage from unprofessional ‘rubs.’ It has also diminished respect for professional masseuses – potentially putting many of them in danger, especially when they apply for jobs in Malta from other countries. Last year, a Chinese woman testified in court after being forced into prostitution in a classical trafficking scenario.

Speaking at Association 4 Equality’s conference “Combating human trafficking today” last month, local experts highlighted that massage parlours and so-called gentlemen’s clubs provide a convenient cover for prostitution and human trafficking. Dr Lara Dimitrijevic of Women’s Rights Foundation pointed out that pimps no longer advertise prostitution only on the dark web. She claims having seen an ad for escort even on Il-Bizzilla, the Air Malta magazine, and the Dutch website allows men to discuss the rates and quality of sex services – including in Malta. If you look it up, you’ll find posts like “I went to this new Chinese massage place at Triq Tal-Qroqq yesterday…” Interestingly, in an attempt to verify the presence of escort ads in Il-Bizzilla, it became clear that Google is used to treating searches for massage and escort as interchangeable in Malta.

Selling sexual services is not criminal in Malta, but pimping and loitering are. As prostitution increasingly moves to massage parlours and rented apartments, law enforcement is losing the anti-loitering provisions as a legal tool to intervene against abuse in prostitution – and human trafficking, which often provides workers for this industry. Trafficking, the experts repeated time and again, is not necessarily about crossing borders – at its core is the recruitment and transfer of an individual into slave-like conditions.

Inspector Joseph Busuttil of the Vice Squad remembered a case of a migrant woman who said she freely chose to prostitute herself and, as a result, went to jail and then back to her country after serving her term. This is despite the fact that the Permission to reside for victims of trafficking or illegal immigration who co-operate with the Maltese authorities regulations offer people like her legal protection and actually encourage them to say they were trafficked. According to the US Department of State’s 2017 report on human trafficking, 30 foreign nationals were identified as victims of human trafficking in Malta and were given medical and employment support.

Still, when alleged traffickers and pimps hire expensive lawyers and victims are left with frugal legal aid, they know too well who has the upper hand. The US Department of State report states that no one has been convicted of trafficking since 2012, which, according to inspector Busuttil, is because the law changed and removed provisions favourable to those who admit to their crimes – so pimps stopped pleading guilty.

Although police officers report that workers from poor countries know they will be prostituted and choose it themselves over poverty in their countries, Dr Anna Vella, medical doctor and member of Dar Hosea shelter for women in prostitution, says, “It’s not that people in poverty make that choice – vulnerable people make it.” Katrine Camilleri of the Jesuit Refugee Service pointed out that the law may not be enough. “We need structures to make sure that victims are supported. Support means living with dignity,” she said.

Reports from many other countries are full of horror stories from women who are afraid to report their abusers because this would mean a prison sentence for them just for selling sex. In the Maltese case, this does not apply – the law encourages women in prostitution to inform on their pimps and report themselves as victims of trafficking. And yet, numerous women opt for prison – and, if they are foreign, deportation. We certainly need to know more about what shapes their choices – and what kind of working conditions they encounter, often under the curtains of innocent-looking massage parlours.