In many countries, including Britain, governments are introducing legislation against trafficking under the guise of protecting women from violence and exploitation. Feminists have initiated or supported such moves, and few have cared to look at what their effect is on the women they are supposed to protect.
Recent police and immigration raids are telling. On 15 February 2001, over 60 asylum seekers and immigrant sex workers from Soho were arrested, paraded in front of the media and held in detention – some were summarily removed in spite of pending asylum claims. Many of the women had fled to the UK to escape war and other persecution. Some were rape victims, some mothers who were brutally separated from their children.
This was not the first time that the authorities had targeted sex workers in Soho. On 8 March 2000, over 60 women took part in the Global Women’s Strike, marching through Soho with banners and placards to stop attempts to evict them from the same flats which were now been raided. As in 2000, we mobilised immediately. We called on Legal Action for Women to co-ordinate legal support. While finding out and visiting who had been detained and lining up lawyers, we held an emergency picket of the Home Office to alert the public and got widespread media coverage. As a result, the raids were publicly condemned and their legality challenged by women’s groups, prominent lawyers, MPs and church people, and a number of deportations were prevented.
As the truth emerged the police changed their story. Their press release issued at the time of the raids claimed that they were “protecting under age children”. But they were now under scrutiny. When they couldn’t produce any children, they claimed that they were “liberating victims of trafficking”. When no pimps or traffickers were arrested, they claimed that the raids were part of a wider initiative to “support Westminster residents”, ignoring that the majority of local residents, including the Soho Society, had publicly condemned the raids!
The raids were planned over months. Women have told us how the police visited them regularly, seemingly to find out if everyone was OK, and asked questions about their nationality. All the women were working independently – many had young children to support and some were sending money back to their family in other countries. Some had been forced into prostitution because they couldn’t feed their children on the hated voucher system. Without our intervention the police lies that they had “liberated victims of trafficking” would have been reported by the media as the official truth.
The legislation the government is proposing would specifically remove the need for the victim to give evidence, allowing the police to decide who is a victim, pimp or trafficker and conveniently remove the possibility of any challenge. People will be convicted on police evidence alone – a green light to police corruption and a very dangerous precedent. As the Soho raids proved, any immigrant woman can be falsely labelled a victim of trafficking, giving the go ahead for further crackdowns on immigrants and asylum seekers. The police routinely abuse their powers during so-called supervisory visits and use the threat of deportation to intimidate and terrorise.
Prostitute women have always said that the biggest deterrent to reporting violence is fear of arrest and, for those of us who are immigrant, deportation. Surely, victims of pimps or traffickers need protection, resources and the right to stay so we can report our persecutors and see them arrested and convicted. If the police really intended to “liberate” the Soho women, why were some women deported within the next few days to countries they fled from because of war and other violence? Why were they denied proper legal advice and the right to appeal against the arbitrary decisions to remove them? We know of at least one occasion where the Home Office lied to a solicitor who called to enquire about a detained woman, and she was deported. And why has the government ruled out witness protection for victims of trafficking as too expensive, while there is no problem paying for over 100 police officers to raid Soho?
Instead of condemning deportation as violence against women, many feminists have been instrumental in the police and government anti-trafficking initiative. In July last year Home Office ministers, police and academics held a conference on trafficking to discuss measures to tighten immigration controls and increase police powers. The report by feminist academics which formed the basis for the, conference recommended “Police undertake simple intelligence gathering on off street prostitution with particular attention to the presence of foreign women. ” This measure was applied in the Soho raids. It also recommended “Developing long-term sustained prevention campaigns in the sending countries most linked to tracking” – a euphemism for strengthening immigration controls against Third World women.
The figures provided by the same academics do not distinguish between women forced into prostitution, and immigrant women working for themselves. “Trafficking” is not prostitution but forced or bonded labour, in the domestic, sex or any other industry. Existing offences of kidnapping, rape, sexual assault, false imprisonment, grievous bodily harm, extortion, etc., could be used to prosecute the assailants of women and children, whatever work they are being forced into. Traffickers escape prosecution not because of a lack of applicable laws, but as with domestic violence and rape, because protecting women is not the priority.
Instead of targeting the violence prostitute women suffer, anti-trafficking legislation is based on an often salacious opposition to sexual exploitation. Yet for some women exploitation in a brothel is an escape from unwaged or low waged exploitation in domestic work, rural work, factories and sweatshops. We have not heard the government complain about Nike or any other multinational. If they were really objecting to exploitation they would object to the working conditions which allow prostitution to flourish. While prostitute women who earn a modest living from their own sweat and tears are prosecuted, persecuted and deported, industrialists and professionals are rewarded for making fortunes at the expense of others.
Anti-trafficking legislation is being used to keep out women from poorer countries and deport immigrant women and children, often to situations where our lives are at risk and where we experience enormous hardship. The raids which were aimed at laying the basis for more such legislation, have provided more evidence against it. It is time, those organisations which are concerned with women’s, children’s and human rights generally, listened to and supported immigrant and refugee sex workers.
July & August 2001