Exclusive: ‘After the raid, a lot of the women didn’t want to return to the premises because they were so traumatised,’ sex worker says as new information obtained under FOI laws emerges
New information obtained under freedom of information (FOI) laws show 69 per cent of such police raids are not leading to any trafficking victims being passed onto support services.
While the study, exclusively shared with The Independent, found around a quarter of such raids discovered no trafficking victims.
Researchers warned the data shows police officers are misleading the public by claiming they have rescued trafficking victims in raids which target sex workers.
Police regularly conduct raids on brothels on the premise human trafficking or modern slavery is taking place there, the study claimed.
Researchers requested information about how many victims of trafficking were identified by police raids which the media reported on as being linked to modern slavery and sex trafficking between 2016 and the end of last year.
The report found women identified as trafficking victims by the police were refusing to enter into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the national support system for victims of modern slavery, which includes those who have been trafficked.
Emily Kenway, a report author, told The Independent police raids are a “strange tool” to supposedly help people as she warned there have been cases where police officers perpetrate “appalling misogynistic behaviour” towards sex workers in raids.
She said the high number of cases where trafficking victims are not referred to support services could indicate the police are “misidentifying” some individuals as trafficking victims when they are sex workers “by choice” so they therefore refuse support.
While there are also issues around genuine trafficking victims often rejecting help as they know support involves being monitored by statutory agencies and potentially being deported, Ms Kenway, a researcher and policy advisor on trafficking and sex work, added.
She said: “Support means being in the system, so if you have got a migration status issue, that is not a safe situation. It potentially starts the wheels in motion for your deportation.
“If you are someone who works in a criminalised industry, with a hostile immigration environment and there are law enforcement officers in front of you, you are not going to feel safe to accept the support they are offering.”
Once trafficking victims with an insecure immigration status accept support, they are given a £65 a week subsistence payment, blocked from working, but can be given accommodation.
Ms Kenway, based at Edinburgh University, said: “You can stay sitting in it for years living off a tiny amount a week. If sex worker-led organisations rather than the police were being funded to provide help, maybe those women would go into support.”
She warned the “public is being misled because sometimes trafficking victims are not being found at all and even when they are, lots are refusing support because the system is not good enough.”
Police forces are under pressure to look like they are taking action on trafficking – women in the sex industry are collateral damage in that. Emily Kenway
The researcher added: “Senior police are referring to things as being trafficking but you look at the data and then no one is being found”.
Ms Kenway said she was angered by the findings as raids are “brutal” practices which generate “fear and distress”.
“It would feel really frightening if a load of police turned up, barged in, started asking questions and searching the place,” Ms Kenway added. “If you think these raids are allegedly happening from a welfare perspective of helping victims, how does that help.”
She argued the police either falsely report they help trafficking victims as they have a misunderstanding of the sex industry or because they are actively “misrepresenting” their actions.
“There are cases where it is definitely PR spin but there are definitely cases where it is incompetent policing and in neither case is it helping women,” Ms Kenway added.
She warned there have been some police raids where officers are intentionally “disrupting” sex worker’s lives under the pretence of supporting victims of trafficking.
“Police forces are under pressure to look like they are taking action on trafficking – women in the sex industry are collateral damage in that,” Ms Kenway said.
She argued politicians are “culpable” for these issues due to “their continued failure to understand” sex work must be decriminalised – adding sex workers have spent decades saying “they need rights – not raid and rescue.”
While 55 FOI requests were submitted to police forces in England and Wales, researchers only received replies to 44 requests, with some of these forces only responding with incomplete material.
Although it is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex in the UK, soliciting, working on the street, sex workers banding together as a group and prostitutes advertising themselves are illegal.
Two of the officers were commenting on the fact women’s skirts were short. The implication is she is a bit of a slut. They asked a woman ‘Why are you doing this job? Why don’t you get yourself a decent job at Primark?’ Niki Adams
Frankie Miren, another report author, said: “Sex workers whose workplaces were raided could go on to face arrest and deportation. And all of this glossed over with fluffy PR strategy and credulous media reporting. It’s a perfect storm in which no one but the police press office is a winner.”
Melissa, a 52-year-old sex worker caught up in a police raid four years ago, told The Independent: “It was devastating. It was incredibly stressful.
“It was a Friday night. They were adamant a girl had called and said she was in distress on the premises which was not the case.
“The accusations were unfounded. It was us three girls in the building. We were all alright – why would we do that to ourselves? We had worked together in the industry for a long time.”
Melissa, who has been doing sex work since she was in her early twenties, explained they were women sharing the premises for safety.
She said: “They questioned us about who we are, what we do, and interrogated us. Telling us we are in trouble and we shouldn’t be doing what we were doing and they were going to throw the book at us.
“We have nothing to hide. They turned the whole place upside down – including the loft. They even searched our hoover. It blew up after they left. They didn’t find anything. They didn’t arrest anybody.
“After the raid, a lot of the women didn’t want to return to the premises because they were so traumatised by what had happened. We lost a few of our members. It was devastating.”
Melissa, who did not want to give her surname, said she was “absolutely terrified” by the ordeal and the raid turned her into a “nervous wreck”.
“It was traumatising,” she added. “We had done nothing. They try and paint it like they’re trying to help you but that is not what it is like in reality.”
After the raid, a lot of the women didn’t want to return to the premises because they were so traumatised by what had happened. We lost a few of our members. It was devastating. Melissa
Melissa explained the raid was followed by police officers standing in the alleyway outside their premises in the evening “trying to intimidate” the women into going home and “threatening” their “regulars”.
She said they contacted the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which supports sex workers, who notified the police what they were doing “was not right”. After they had a meeting with Guy Collings, a former high-ranking police officer and a member of the ECP, the police stopped bothering them, she added.
Melissa added: “They got the council on to us after that. We were there for 14 or 15 years with no problem, and they got us out. There is nowhere where any of us feel as safe now as we did then.
“We had to find other places to work and on occasion, put ourselves in dangerous situations. It is not an easy job to feel safe in, but when were there we had control over who we gave our address to, and over who we opened the door to. We had cameras on the access road. It is a tragedy we lost that space to share.”
Dan Vajzovic, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for prostitution and sex work, told The Independent policing begins from attempting to bolster sex workers’ safety.
“Our enforcement efforts focus on those who target sex workers, organised criminals who profit from exploitation and others who seek to exploit for their own gain,” the Assistant Chief Constable added.
“We do visit locations where sex workers are operating in order to verify that no exploitation is occurring. Sex workers are disproportionately exposed to violence and by establishing contact I hope that we can build trust and encourage reporting of offences perpetrated against sex workers”.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the ECP, said there are long-term major issues with police officers wrongly identifying sex workers as trafficking victims.
The police receive ring-fenced money for anti-trafficking operations and “one way they can show results is by raiding sex worker’s premises”, she added.