Justice Minister, Chris Ellison, said on Monday that the A$20 million ($14 million) initiative would include a 23-member mobile strike team to investigate people-trafficking and sexual servitude and a new migration officer based in Thailand to focus on the trade.

The government has been unable to quantify the extent of the problem. But support group Project Respect, which represents women brought to Australia as sex slaves, believes there could be up to 1000 women involved at any one time.

Brothel sources have said sex slaves or “contract girls” are most often Thai, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Indonesian.

Most are aged from 18 to their early 20s, but some are as young as 12 and are forced to pay off debt contracts of up to A$50,000 ($35,000) to traffickers after reaching Canberra. This can take years.

Attention

The trade came under the spotlight this year, following the inquest into the death of a 27-year-old Thai woman, heroin addict Puongtong Simaplee, who choked to death on her vomit, in a Sydney detention centre after 15 years as a prostitute in Australia.

Some of the "contract girls" working in Australia are as young as 12

Ellison said Interpol had ranked people-trafficking as one of the world’s top three criminal activities.

“Thailand is an area of deep concern…but of course there are other emerging countries of interest such as Cambodia, Vietnam and China. We can’t be complacent, this is an international problem and we are treating it as such,” he said.

Australia introduced anti-sex slave laws in 1998.

Canberra’s Federal Police charged eight people recently with sexual servitude, slavery and deceptive recruiting offences, the first charges under the five-year-old laws.

Slavery carries a penalty of up to 25 years in jail, people convicted of sexual servitude face up to 15 years in prison and deceptive recruiting carries a penalty of up to seven years in jail.