This article is part of a series examining a global human trafficking syndicate exploiting flaws in Australian border security and the immigration system. See all 11 stories.
A global human trafficking syndicate has exploited flaws in Australian border security and the immigration system that allowed it to run a national illegal sex racket moving exploited foreign women around the country like “cattle”.
The crime boss at the operation’s centre set up his Australian operation immediately after his release from jail in Britain, where he was implicated in a similar illegal sex ring.
Binjun Xie, now a wealthy Sydney resident but previously identified by UK police as a Chinese triad boss nicknamed “The Hammer”, is one of several crime syndicate figures using migration system gaps.
His actions are laid bare in a major international journalism series, Trafficked, which uses leaked documents, undercover video and interviews with senior officials to expose weaknesses in Australia’s immigration system, the players who profit and the people who suffer as a result.
The investigation exposes the misuse of migration agents and fixers running so-called visa farms that engage in wholesale rorting of visas, including protection visas reserved for humanitarian reasons.
British investigator Kevin Forrest, who helped jail Xie in England a decade ago, said Asian women at his brothels had their passports removed and were directed to perform extreme and degrading services, including rape fantasies.
He said the women were subjected to modern slavery-like conditions: “You never come out. You never go into town. You never socialise. You’re never allowed to do anything else. You are there to perform the sex.”
The former detective said he was shocked that Australia had allowed Xie to enter the country and become involved in a criminal enterprise after his earlier ring was shut down in Europe.
“It seems that he’s gone straight back to China, and then straight into Australia, and started again.”
Trafficked is a project led by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, 60 Minutes and Stan’s Revealed documentary program which casts a light on visa rorting, human trafficking and foreign worker exploitation in Australia, including in a booming underground prostitution industry.
The investigation looks at visa fixers and migration agents with federal government licences who have enabled the entry into Australia of thousands of foreign workers.
Secret police intelligence, along with interviews with state and federal agencies and covert recordings, suggest many of these workers are exploited or involved in criminal activity.
Law enforcement sources not authorised to talk publicly said investigators warned Commonwealth agencies that federal government-licensed migration agents – including one who has submitted visa applications linked to Xie’s network, Sydney migration agent Songtao Lu – were enabling visa farms.
The visa farms are used by organised crime syndicate bosses to gain repeated entry into Australia for syndicate members and those they exploit as indentured labour.
“We think that this is an incredibly underreported crime.”AFP Superintendent Jayne Crossling on sex trafficking
The investigation’s undercover footage corroborates these law enforcement warnings, capturing multiple agents offering to lodge false migration claims in return for money. While some agents appear to have falsified visa applications, there is no evidence to suggest they are personally aware of the syndicate’s crimes, including human trafficking and illegal prostitution, only that they are used by the syndicate to enable their operation.
With the exception of a few investigations, the police documents suggest the networks involved in the underground sex trade largely operate with impunity.
Senior Queensland Police organised crime investigator Detective Inspector Brad Phelps said vulnerable Asian women were being moved like “cattle” across Australia and being paid abysmally, if at all, by crime syndicates earning “hundreds of millions of dollars”.
“Sexual servitude, modern slavery are … synonymous with this type of activity,” he said.
“These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: they’re in a foreign country, they don’t speak our language, they have no control over the work they’re conducting, they have no control over their clients, there’s no health and safety.
“They really are being treated as the lowest of the low and people are making massive profits from this exploitation.”
Phelps described as “reprehensible” any migration agents who knew of the situation and facilitated visas for Asian sex workers his detectives believed were being exploited in a series of east coast motels.
In a rare interview from a victim, a South Korean woman spoke of her treatment at the hands of an Australian illegal brothel ring previously targeted by the federal police and which, this year, was the subject of fresh trafficking allegations and police raids.
The AFP said it was likely the syndicate was still running.
Federal police Superintendent Jayne Crossling, who oversees the AFP’s human trafficking division, said the small number of prosecutions was frustrating and reflected the difficulty obtaining co-operation from fearful victims.
“We think that this is an incredibly underreported crime. I think we can do more to detect. We can do more to prevent. We can do more to educate those victims,” she said, while calling for “improvements” in Australian law.
Former Immigration Department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi, who worked closely with the Howard government, said the revelations, along with data suggesting visa rorting had been exploding since 2014, suggested the Department of Home Affairs and the former government had failed to take effective action.
He estimated there were at least 30,000 foreign workers remaining in Australia unlawfully, part of a “rapidly expanding permanent underclass, constantly exploited” in the sex industry, on farms and in other occupations.
“We don’t ever want to become like the US or Europe from an immigration and border security perspective, but frankly we are now just like them in terms of the assault on our borders,” he said.
Migration system under attack
The suspected criminal networks that link to Binjun Xie have appeared on state and federal law enforcement radar for years.
South Australian police uncovered one as part of “Operation Webpage”. It found call centres – including a room with seven Chinese nationals and 190 mobile phones – and websites set up to sell the services of Asian sex workers.
Leaked, confidential Operation Webpage briefings from 2018 state the “vast majority of the sex workers located by investigators cannot speak (or speak very little) English and routinely have no apparent ties to South Australia”.
Investigators also documented “links to Asian organised crime, child pornography and potential exploitation of young female Chinese students, human trafficking and money laundering across borders”.
“The likelihood of human trafficking occurring in SA and across Australia is high,” investigators concluded in another report, noting how the women appeared to be controlled by Chinese-organised crime gangs.
The Adelaide officers made multiple arrests for illegal prostitution offences and money laundering but were stymied by jurisdiction and resourcing issues.
They urged the introduction of “a multi-faceted task force” of state investigators and the Department of Home Affairs, Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.
State police sources said the recommendation was not acted upon and Operation Webpage was wound down by 2019.
Sex workers used as ‘pawns’
At this time, detectives in North Queensland, led by Detective Inspector Brad Phelps, were firing up.
Phelps, who also believes there is an urgent need for national action, led an investigation codenamed Ravens responding to complaints about illegal prostitution.
“They really are being treated as the lowest of the low and people are making massive profits from this exploitation.”Detective Inspector Brad Phelps
The police, though, were led to a “much more sinister and bigger picture”, he said.
“[We] stopped looking at the sex workers themselves as offenders, but as victims, as pawns.”
Phelps also revealed that some Asian women working in the sex industry “were being controlled and manipulated” and that this “certainly led into [federal government-licensed] migration agents and money laundering and the whole organised crime overarching umbrella”.
Ravens uncovered a hierarchal structure. Exploited sex workers occupied the lowest rung; they answered to “district controllers” co-ordinating with transportation and accommodation providers; at the top of the tree sat organised crime bosses.
“[The women] were moved like cattle across the country into different motels, where they were being exploited by these organised crime syndicates,” Phelps said.
He said these Asian women endured abysmal conditions, commonly working in debt bondage.
“They were here to work off a debt and their families could potentially be harmed if they caused any angst amongst the syndicate.”
Phelps said the national and international problem required multi-agency investigations into worker exploitation, dirty money trail and corrupting of the migration system.
“We need to target the wealth and the profit being stimulated and generated and to really curb this activity,” he said, warning the vast sums earned by Asian sex syndicates were laundered offshore only to “find [their] way into [Australian] real estate and the Australian economy”.
Motels used as illegal brothels
Phelps said some of the exploited women were working in a string of motels in regional centres, including Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and Mount Isa, as well as in NSW.
“They’re put into a motel in a location. They stay in that room, they live in that room, they work out of that room until they are moved to another location.”
In 2020 and 2021, police working on Operation Ravens arrested and charged several motel owners and managers with running illegal brothels, but they received small fines and avoided criminal convictions.
Phelps said victims of exploitation were too fearful to co-operate with police and he suspected the syndicate was still operating motels as illegal brothels.
The joint media investigation used surveillance of suspect sites and undercover agents to inquire with motel managers and reception staff about the availability of sex workers.
The undercover operatives observed multiple Asian women living and working in cramped rooms, at motels previously linked by Phelps’ investigators to crime syndicates. On two occasions women had cooking facilities where they worked, suggesting they also live there.
In several cases, they disclosed they were working for “bosses” and that they would engage in unsafe sex.
Phone numbers and business records, along with the observations of the undercover operatives and court records, linked 17 motels in Queensland and NSW to the Asian crime sex syndicates targeted by Ravens.
They included motels in Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and Brisbane.
Some of the sex workers and mid-level syndicate suspects operating out of these motels are linked back to the Binjun Xie network.
The Mr Big of trafficking
Sydney-based Binjun Xie has built a lavish life in Australia on the back of the organised crime-controlled underground sex trade and the human misery it entails.
A key confidential source with deep knowledge of the underground sex industry and Xie’s business operations briefed this masthead about the Chinese-born crime boss’ financial and business records in Australia.
Analysis of Xie’s business associates and financial records, along with court records and briefings from state and international police, suggests he sits at the apex of a national criminal syndicate moving Asian women across the country.
The records and briefings reveal that Xie’s business empire includes a Canberra-based woman previously investigated by the federal police for illegal prostitution offences and who has moved Asian women from Australia’s east coast to West Australia.
Another of his business associates was identified by Queensland Police’s Operation Ravens as a mid-level Chinese recruiter of vulnerable sex workers and a money launderer.
This recruiter told Queensland detectives she was a victim of debt bondage and was paying off a $200,000 debt in China by working for the syndicate.
A casino high-roller who lives in a secure apartment tower in Burwood, Sydney, Xie was the subject of a major organised crime probe in Britain in 2012 and 2013.
Ex-detective Kevin Forrest investigated Xie for human trafficking, money laundering and illegal prostitution.
“This is 100 per cent exploitation. This is 10 out of 10 for exploitation. These girls are not willing.”British detective Kevin Forrest, who has investigated sex trafficking rings
He said the Asian women under the Xie syndicate’s control in Britain “were effectively prisoners” who were paid minimal amounts, if at all, to provide sexual services and had their passports removed from them.
While not physically imposing, Forrest believed Xie maintained control over Asian sex workers via fear, a belief he said was strengthened by his triad nickname: The Hammer.
“This is 100 per cent exploitation. This is 10 out of 10 for exploitation. These girls are not willing,” he said.
Forrest said some of the Asian women in Xie’s illegal brothels were “being bought to perform rape, and rape was being specified in the text, and the messaging that I saw on the phones, ‘I want to rape you’. You know, ‘How much for a rape?’ And they were being charged. I think it was 50 or 100 pounds for that. Unprotected sex was always being asked for. And that was being granted by the controller of the phone … so, they had no choice.
“Those girls have been abused every day behind those doors. Not just by the people who are paying for it, who they, I suppose see it as being a service, but they are being kept against their will. And being told that’s what they’ve got to do. They are victims of sexual assault. They’re victims of rape every day.”
“Rape was being specified .. (in) the messaging that I saw on the phones, ‘I want to rape you’. You know, ‘How much for a rape?’”Kevin Forrest on some of the horrific treatment the women faced
Xie entered the UK on a student visa and was also running a migration crime racket.
Forrest charged him with money laundering and illegal brothel offences, and he was jailed for five years in 2013. After an early release from prison he was deported to China.
Xie arrived in Australia in late 2014, also on a student visa.
Migration agents used to rort system
Members of Xie’s crime network are also working with a federal government licensed migration agent in Sydney, Songtao Lu, who official sources confirmed has for 10 years been flagged by federal government agencies as being used by the syndicate to lodge false visa claims for exploited foreign workers, including sex workers.
Lu first came to the attention of South Australian detectives in 2018 after they discovered dozens of women being controlled by a crime syndicate had obtained visas with his assistance. There is no evidence that Lu was aware of the syndicate’s activities or the women’s circumstances, only that the syndicate used his services.
Lu was one of several federal government-licensed migration agents a South Australian police report warned were likely “facilitating provision of foreign nationals, particularly Chinese nationals, for sex industry work in SA”.
Three years after he was flagged, Lu remains licensed by the federal government to assist people obtain visas — and he is still being used for illegitimate visa applications.
In a covert recording, Lu is taped offering to lodge a false asylum protection visa application for $2500.
“For cases like yours, what you could do is to apply for a protection visa. And then you can get a bridging visa. A bridging visa can be used for about three years. Our fee is $2500,” he says on the recording.
The Home Affairs Department said it does not respond to questions about specific cases or individuals, but said there was a comprehensive suite of laws and programs in place to defend the integrity of the visa system and prevent worker exploitation.
A spokesperson also said there were “penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment and specific protections for victims giving evidence in court in relation to human trafficking”.