Briefing: Trafficking

1. Claims that “80% of women in prostitution are controlled by traffickers”[1] have been thoroughly discredited, most recently in the Guardian’s extensive investigation ‘Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic’ 20 Oct 2009

Even the widely used claim that of 4,000 women trafficked into the UK a year is based on research[2] which makes the incredulous claim that: “every single foreign woman in the ‘walk-up’ flats in Soho had been smuggled into the country and forced to work as a prostitute.” This would come as a surprise to the over 60 women who work in walk-up flats in Soho who regularly attend meetings called by the English Collective of Prostitutes, do interviews with the press, meet parliamentarians and who describe their situation as mothers supporting families or working to send money back home.

Recent research has further confirmed that “the majority of sex workers are not forced or trafficked[3]

2. Anti-trafficking legislation is primarily being used to target immigrant sex workers for raids and deportations.  Phones at the UK Trafficking Centre are answered by immigration officers which indicates that far from providing protection, anti-trafficking initiatives are primarily aimed at targeting and deporting immigrant women.

Trafficking is not about prostitution but about poverty, immigration and asylum.  Many women from poorer countries come to work in the UK in the hope of improving their and their children’s lives.  Others are asylum seekers fleeing war or persecution who have been left without support, yet prevented from working legally.  How can they survive except by begging or working illegally, including in prostitution?  The debt immigrants incur in order to get here and the destitution asylum seekers face, combined with the fear of deportation, lays them open to exploitation.  Whether in the sex industry, agricultural, domestic or other service work, exploitation is rife.  (‘Modern slavery – the reality,’ Guardian, 12 Sept 2011)

3. Trafficking is forced or bonded labour, abduction, kidnapping, false imprisonment, rape, grievous bodily harm, extortion.  Existing laws cover all these offences and could be used to prosecute the assailants of women and children, whatever work they are being forced into.

4. The UK charge of trafficking for prostitution, unlike trafficking for any other industry, does not require force or coercion.[4] This enables every woman with a foreign accent to be falsely labelled a victim of trafficking!

Sections 57, 58, 59 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 specify that:

“A person commits an offence if he intentionally arranges or facilitates the arrival in [or within or out of] the United Kingdom of another person.”

This is contrary to the UN definition of trafficking (Palermo Protocol) which requires force and coercion to be proved.  It specifies that:

“’Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

The Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking signed by the UK government in March 2007 is specific that the offence of trafficking should include three essential components of “action”, “means” and “purpose”:

“Thus trafficking means much more than mere organised movement of persons for profit. The critical additional factors that distinguish trafficking from migrant smuggling are use of one of the means listed (force, deception, abuse of a situation of vulnerability and so on) throughout or at some stage in the process, and use of that means for the purpose of exploitation.”

Under UK anti-trafficking law, anyone who has helped someone who works in the sex industry to come into the UK, leave the UK or travel within the UK can be arrested, convicted and imprisoned.  One Brazilian mother in our network was convicted of trafficking and imprisoned for three years for running a working flat where other immigrant women worked.  Yet the judge agreed that “none of these women was, in fact, coerced by you into acting as a prostitute . . . you treated them in a kindly and hospitable way”.  All her possessions, built up over many years of hard work, have been confiscated and she faces losing custody of her seven-year-old child.  Her British citizenship has been withdrawn despite living in the UK for 25 years and she now faces deportation.  Her partner was convicted of “trafficking within the UK” for picking her and another woman up at the airport.

5. Victims of trafficking are not being helped.  Despite government claims about prioritising trafficking, most victims get no protection.  77 suspected child victims of trafficking went missing from a local authority care home over a period of two years.  (Guardian, 5 May 2009)  Only four children have been found and there have been no prosecutions.  A surveillance operation at the home was cancelled, and despite it being known that children were disappearing more young people kept on being sent there.  What does this say about the priority given to cases of trafficking where harm may be occurring, that resources couldn’t be found to place two officers outside the home to stop the children disappearing?  What does it say about the immigration authorities which worked hand in hand with the police and kept sending children there?

It was only a determined campaign by Black Women’s Rape Action Project that won the release of a 17-year-old victim of trafficking from an adult prison after she was charged with travelling on false documents.  The Joint Committee on Human Rights report on Human Trafficking confirms that “victims may often find themselves treated as immigration offenders and face enforcement actions such as detention and removals.[5] It called for a review of immigration laws and policies “in the context of their impact on the victims of trafficking.”  2007 research found that “The current system does not guarantee them [trafficked persons] protection, access to services, let alone justice” and that “policy in the UK interprets trafficking primarily as an immigration offence.” [6] Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s refusal to guarantee that those rescued from forced prostitution would not face deportation confirms that the protection of victims is not prioritised.

In addition, the government is accused of legalising trafficking by removing the right of migrant domestic workers to change employer.  “This will make it virtually impossible to challenge any maltreatment or abuse, and indeed will encourage it.  32% of domestic workers who registered at Kalayaan during 06-07 had their passports withheld by their employer, 24% had been physically abused and 9% had been sexually abused.”[7]

Allowing victims of trafficking residence permits and other protection has been dismissed by government as raising “large questions of the evasion of immigration control . . .”[8] If women’s safety and welfare were really the priority why shouldn’t a woman who has escaped from a situation where she faced threats, violence and/or rape and fears reprisals have the right to stay in the UK?

6. The public’s understandable concern for victims of trafficking is being exploited to promote a moralistic and dangerous crusade against prostitution.  “. . . anti-trafficking measures are still being used to justify a raft of measures which are aimed at suppressing sex work in general.”[9] It has lead to proposals to criminalise men who buy sex, along the lines of Swedish law.  All these measures would push prostitution further underground thus making sex workers more vulnerable to violence.

7. Prostitution is the consensual exchange of sexual services for money.  It is not illegal.  Those who advocate the criminalisation of clients claim that it is “uniquely degrading” and equal to rape.  Sex workers, like any other human being, have always distinguished between the sex they consent to (for money or not), and that which violates their bodies and their will.  While many would prefer another job, they also point to the fact that sex work is often better paid than most of the low-waged jobs women do.

8. Some organisations which claim to help victims have a vested interest in promoting “sex trafficking” as a huge and growing problem.  The Poppy Project received £4.5m (1998-2003) government funding to “assist victims of trafficking”[10].  It is based on the false assumption that prostitution and violence are one and the same.  Most victims won’t go to the Poppy Project because they work in partnership with the Home Office, the immigration authorities and the police.[11] Others are ineligible for help because of restrictive entrance criteria which specifies that the woman must be “willing to co-operate with the authorities” or must have been forced to make money for others in prostitution in the UK in the previous 30 days.

While police trafficking budgets have gone up enormously in recent years most police operations have not yielded victims of trafficking but immigrants or asylum seekers who are here of their own free will and are then deported.  The press hailed the rescue of 19 victims of trafficking in the 2005 raid on the Birmingham massage parlour Cuddles, but the Home Office later admitted “at no point did any of the women indicate that they were trafficked into the UK.”   At least seven were deported.

Concern has been expressed at the “abuses committed in the course of raids.“ [12] Brothel-keeping, which requires no force or coercion to be proved, is the offence which most often results and prosecutions are rising yearly — from 3 in 2004, to 11 in 2005, to 39 in 2006, to 41 in 2007 (Answers to Lord Faulkner, Hansard 15 January 2009.)

Whatever the true numbers of trafficked women may be, they are nowhere near the number of rape victims whose rapists have not been convicted.  But despite women pressing for justice and protection from rape, we are not aware of any comparable increase in budgets to improve the police and CPS response to rape or sexual assault, including the rape of sex workers.

9. Some international agencies are also speaking out against anti-trafficking legislation:

“We quickly found that anti-trafficking measures were being used internationally to prevent the migration of people, especially women who are driven by poverty and globalisation to move country.  Governments claim that millions of women are being trafficked by a billion dollar sex industry, but the UNHCR and others have pointed out that because of tightening immigration controls, paying an agent is often the only way to migrate.  Governments and most NGOs only focus on sexual exploitation, ignoring the horrendous exploitation in sweatshops and agricultural labour, including here in the UK.  We work very closely with sex workers’ organisations as we have found this to be the most effective way to help victims of trafficking.” Abhijit Dasgupta, Action Aid Asia. 2006.

The English Collective of Prostitutes co-ordinates Safety First –
a coalition of bereaved families, Ipswich residents, church people, nurses, doctors, probation officers, anti-rape and anti-poverty campaigners, trade unionists, prison and drug reformers, and sex worker projects.

Tel: 020 7482 2496

[1] For example, former Solicitor General, Vera Baird MP, Woman’s Hour, 15 January 2008. The figure derives from a report (Sex in the City, 2004) by the Poppy Project which found that 80% of women working in “brothels, saunas and massage parlours” in London were “non British nationals” and concluded (without evidence) that “a large proportion of them are likely to have been trafficked into the country”.  This research was condemned as having “serious methodological limitations by Prof. Julia O’Connell Davidson (A Question of Consent? Sexual Slavery and Sex Work in the UK, 2009).

[2] “Organised crime: revenues, economic and social costs, and criminal assets available for seizure”, Home Office, 2007.”  Researchers admit in the report that the data was “very poor”, the estimate was “very approximate” and “should be treated with great caution”.


[4] Asylum & Immigration Act 2004

[5] Twenty-sixth Report of Session, 2005-6, Vol. 1

[6] “Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World”, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, 2007.

[7] Migration must work for workers too. Kalayaan Campaign Statement, Oct 2007

[8] Setting the Boundaries: Reforming the Law on Sex Offences, 2000, p130

[9] Collateral Damage, ibid

[10] Plus an additional £1.3 million in 2007 and additional funding in 2008.

[11] The lesson which trafficked persons drew from the way that government agencies reacted towards them . . . was that it was generally better to avoid having anything to do with government agencies, . . Collateral Damage, ibid p10

11  Collateral Damage, Ibid. p16