In February 2001, we organized an emergency picket to protest against police and immigration raids against 60 immigrant women in Soho, London. The protest got widespread sympathetic media coverage and as a result the raids were publicly condemned and their legality challenged by women’s groups, prominent lawyers, MPs and church people. Many deportations were stopped by the public outcry and by Legal Action for Women organizing good legal representation for detained women. Women, denied they were victims of trafficking and said they are working independently and earning money to support themselves and their families.
Article published by the Social Justice Network, Summer 2005
When 17yr old Nantale jumped from the car of the man who had brought her from Uganda and imprisoned her in a flat in London, on one of the rare occasions he left her unattended, she never thought that a few months later she would again be locked up, this time facing prosecution for entering the country by “deception”, and possible deportation back into the hands of her attackers.
Yet Nantale is one of over 200 people prosecuted since legislation was introduced in 2004 criminalizing people for coming into the UK with false documents. Nantale was arrested when she claimed asylum and held for a week in an adult jail. She was eventually released and charges were dropped as a result of a public campaign by Black Women’s Rape Action Project, and widespread support including from key members of the church. But other young women who came into the country in similar circumstances and who didn’t have this kind of support have been convicted. (1)
Despite claims that anti-trafficking legislation protects victims of trafficking and even regular government pronouncements that “. . . it is the trafficked people who are the victims,”(2) the police, courts and government prioritise implementing repressive immigration controls over women and children’s safety and welfare and are using anti-trafficking primarily as an excuse to step up deportations of immigrant sex workers and prevent people crossing international borders.
Abhijit Dasgupta, former coordinator of the anti-trafficking programme at Action Aid International spells out his experience:
“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 globalization 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’ organizations as we have found this to be the most effective way to help victims of trafficking.”
The 2001 police and immigration raids in Soho, central London, exposed how immigrant sex workers are being targeted by anti-trafficking legislation and is one example of how the truth often varies greatly from the sensational headlines. Over 50 working flats were raided and more than 60 asylum seekers and immigrant sex workers were arrested, paraded to the media and detained pending deportation. Some were rape victims, some were mothers, brutally separated from their children. Many had started working as prostitutes because they couldn’t survive on the hated vouchers or on NASS(3) support which is 70% of poverty line benefits.
LAW co-ordinated legal support and 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, church people and even the Soho Society. The local vicar has since spoken of how sex workers are an integral part of the community. Most of the planned deportations were prevented.
Yet without our intervention, police claims that they had liberated ‘victims of trafficking’ as first announced in the media, would have been sustained.
No feminist academics or others who write widely on trafficking condemned the raids. Others have slavishly quoted police figures on the numbers of “victims of trafficking” which fail to distinguish between women forced into prostitution and immigrant women working for themselves(4) – ignoring the voices of sex workers themselves and making any immigrant women vulnerable to being labelled a victim of trafficking and deported:
“All this talk of Balkan gangs running the Soho girls is rubbish. We are freelances, working for ourselves. Apart from what I need to live on, I send all my money back home. I take nothing from the state over here. I pay my way by selling my body and I just want to be left alone.” (5)
In our experience people have compelling reasons for leaving their loved ones and all that is familiar to them. Yet we rarely hear of the devastation, repression and poverty caused by wars, arms trading, and globalisation often fuelled by western governments and corporations, which drive people to seek safety and a better life in Britain. Two young women from Moldavia who came to us for help spoke about the conditions they left behind.
“In Moldavia, my mother earns £5 a week to support our family of five. We have no running water, or gas for heating. We have to collect firewood, and get water from a well. . . . My sister and I came to the UK, we thought to work in a restaurant. After a week the men said we must earn our keep by sleeping with other men. They beat us, and said my sister and I would never see each other again if we tried to escape. The ECP helped us get housing with some nuns. We can’t go to the police because we know we’d be deported. We now work in a club and our family depends on the money we send home.”
These women needed what all victims of violence need, protection of the police and courts, housing, healthcare, welfare benefits and to see their assailants brought to justice. Yet prostitute women have always said that fear of arrest — and if we are immigrant, fear of deportation — is the biggest deterrent to reporting violence. Increasing support for the decriminalisation of sex work reflects concern at how criminalisation prevents women reporting attacks and exploitation.(6)
Housing and other resources which allow women to stay in the UK only whilst pursuing a prosecution against their attackers are inadequate. Women will not be able to come forward if they know that they will be deported when the case finishes. 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? Last year, new legislation further cut access to legal aid, so that victims of trafficking and other violence face even further obstacles to getting protection.
“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.
The anti-trafficking lobby often focusses on a salacious opposition to sexual exploitation, ignoring other forms of exploitation, for example in domestic or rural work, factories and sweatshops.(7)
Ending trafficking and all forms of violence and exploitation, is about making poverty history – that is by giving women and men the power to deal with poverty in their own way, and ending wars that devour resources for life and the planet.
We rely on people in the church for support for our day-to-day work helping sex workers and their families get protection and justice. There are many ways you can help:
- See our demands on what can be for the safety and protection of prostitutes and all other women and children on our website:www.prostitutescollective.net.
- Invite us to speak to your organization, congregation etc.
- Include information from us in any publication you have.
- Send a donation. We are unfunded for this work and depend on donations to continue our work.
English Collective of Prostitutes, Crossroads Women’s Centre, 230a Kentish Town Rd, London NW5 2AB ph: 020 7482 2496
1. K v Croydon Crown Court, Friday 4 March 2005. CO/1267/2005
2. Harriet Harman, launch of European Directive on Trafficking. Guardian 9 February 2005
3. Under the National Asylum Support System a single woman asylum seeker gets £38 a week and a woman with one child gets £86.
4. “Stopping Traffic: Exploring the extent of, and responses to, trafficking in women for sexual exploitation in the UK”, Liz Kelly, Linda Regan. Police Research Series Paper 125, May 2000.
5. Soho sex workers say claims they are being pimped by organised gangs are part of an underhand plot to discredit them and clean up the notorious red light district, Jon Silverman, BBC Online, 22 February 2003
6. For more information on this see Criminalisation: the price women and children pay, available from English Collective of Prostitutes.
7. Consideration should be given to the creation of a crime of ‘sexual exploitation’, where proving the offence would require showing that a sexual act took place and that someone else benefited from it in monetary terms or in kind, Stopping Traffic ibid