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Briefing: Trafficking

“We have been spied on, arrested, cut off from our families, had our savings confiscated, interrogated, imprisoned and placed into the hands of the men with guns, in order for them to send us home… all in the name of “protection against trafficking”. It’s rubbing salt into the wound that this is called helping us. We are grateful for those who are genuinely concerned with our welfare … but we ask you to listen to us and think in new ways… “ – Empower Foundation, Thailand


1. Claims that “80% of women in prostitution are controlled by traffickers”[1] have been thoroughly discredited. In fact, less than 6% of migrant sex workers are trafficked.[2]

As far back as 2009, a Guardian forensic analysis of arrest figures and research found: “the scale of and nature of sex trafficking into the UK has been exaggerated by politicians and media”.[3]

Even the widely used claim that of 4,000 women trafficked into the UK a year is based on research[4] 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 gave evidence[5] in court against the closure of their flats in 2013, 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.[6]

2. The UK charge of trafficking for prostitution[7], unlike trafficking for any other industry[8], does not require force or coercion.

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)[9] which requires force and coercion to be proved. The Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking defines trafficking as “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).

3. Anti-trafficking legislation is primarily being used to target immigrant sex workers for raids and deportations.

In December 2013, 250 police officers, with the stated aim of saving victims of “rape and human trafficking” broke down doors, handcuffed women and dragged at least one woman out in her underwear to the waiting media. No victims were found, but immigrant women were taken against their will to a so-called “place of safety” and then, when they insisted they were working independently, dumped onto the street in the middle of the night.

One Brazilian mother in our network was convicted of trafficking and imprisoned for three years for running a 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, were confiscated and she faced losing custody of her seven-year-old child. Her British citizenship was withdrawn despite her having lived in the UK for 25 years and she narrowly escaped being deported.

4. Victims of trafficking are not being helped.

In 2011 child victims, forced to work as servants, got compensation because the police systematically refused to investigate the horrific abuse they suffered.[10]

In 2009, 77 child victims of trafficking went missing from a local authority care home over a period of two years.[11] Only four children were 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. The immigration authorities working hand-in-hand with the police kept sending children there.

In 2005, 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.[12]

The 2005 Joint Committee on Human Rights report on Human Trafficking confirmed that “victims may often find themselves treated as immigration offenders and face enforcement actions such as detention and removals.[13] Government policy specifically refuses to guarantee that those rescued from forced prostitution will not face deportation.[14]

5. 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.

6. The trafficking of men, women and children for labour exploitation is far more widespread than sex trafficking.

For every trafficking victim subjected to forced prostitution, nine people are forced to work”[15] in other fields. 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 denied support, yet prevented from working legally. Begging or working illegally, including in prostitution are some of the few options for people left destitute. Whether in the sex industry, agricultural, domestic or other service work, exploitation is rife.[16]

7. Trafficking is distinct from prostitution, which is the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for money. 

The public’s understandable concern for victims of trafficking is being exploited to promote a moralistic and dangerous crusade against prostitution. It has lead to proposals to criminalise men who buy sex, along the lines of the 1999 Swedish Sexköpslagen. This would push prostitution further underground and make sex workers more vulnerable to violence.[17] Decriminalising sex work, as has been introduced in New Zealand,[18] would make it easier for victims of trafficking to come forward without fear of arrest, and for the police to pursue rapists and traffickers rather than sex workers and clients.

8. Some organisations which claim to help victims have a vested interest in promoting “sex trafficking” as a huge and growing problem.

The now defunct Poppy Project received at least £6m government funding to “assist victims of trafficking”[19]. It had a stated aim to end all prostitution on the grounds that it “helps to construct and maintain gender inequality”. It was responsible for two reports which provided the basis for some of the fabricated statistics on trafficking. The 2004 “Sex in the City” report 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”. The 2008 “Big Brothel” report claimed to have found “indicators of trafficking in every borough of London”. This report was subsequently condemned as having “serious flaws” by academics who said the claims about trafficking “cannot be substantiated.”

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. 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.


[1] For example, former Solicitor General, Vera Baird MP, Woman’s Hour, 15 January 2008.

[2] “Many migrants prefer working in the sex industry rather than the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs” (Mai, 2011).

[3] ‘The Guardian, 20 October 2009. Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic.

[4] “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“.

[5] The Guardian, 19 January 2014. Rupert Everett in Defence of Prostitutes.

[6] BBC, 18 February 2003.

[7] Sexual Offences Act, 2003

[8] Asylum & Immigration Act 2004

[9] ’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. Palermo Protocol, 2003

[10] O.O.O. and Others v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, 2011

[11] The Guardian, 5 May 2009.


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

[14]  The Guardian, 4 October 2007. Sex trafficking victims rescued by police may face deportation.

[15] ‘10 Things You Need To know About Labour Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region’ World Vision, June 2011

[16] The Guardian, 12 Sept 2011. Modern slavery – the reality.

[17] Jakobsson and Levy, 2014. The Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women found that criminalising clients “threatened sex workers’ income security and working conditions, increases law enforcement power over sex workers and increases stigma against sex workers.” GAATW Bill C-36 Briefing 8 September 2014.

[18] New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003. The Prostitution Law Review Committee, five years later, found there had been no increase in prostitution or trafficking. Sex workers’ are more able to leave prostitution and secure other work because they aren’t registered and convictions have been cleared from their record.  The law decriminalised sex workers on the street and in premises which has made it easier to report violence and allowed sex workers to work together, increasing safety.

[19] The Guardian, 20 October 2009. Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic.