For more than three decades the UK has been a target for traffickers exporting women and children from poor and conflict-ridden countries to work in the sex industry. The trade in flesh is less risky than importing drugs or guns, partly because the victims are so terrified of reprisals from the traffickers that they rarely report them to the police.
Since the 1990s, the UK sex industry has expanded at a rate that has left law enforcers running to catch up. By the mid 2000s, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) estimated that approximately 80 percent of women working in London's brothels were foreign nationals, mainly from the Balkans, Eastern and Central Europe, South East Asia and West Africa. Not all of these women had been trafficked but a significant number most certainly had.
Support services and police in the original source countries have reported that women who are lucky enough to escape their traffickers return home from the UK debt-bonded, traumatised and in fear of their lives.
But in recent years a number of academics, campaigners and journalists have been peddling a new twist on the story: namely that trafficking only exists in the imaginations of moralists, scaremongers and man-hating feminists.
No-one knows how many women are sex trafficked into the UK but trafficking deniers peddle mistruths about those of us who wish to see an end to this abuse - for example that feminists hate men and sex; and that we are in bed with right-wing religious moralists. They have been successful in persuading many a journalist, politician and policy maker that tales of trafficking amount to little more than an urban myth.
The Ignoble Order of the Golden Flying Penis
In 2009 investigative journalist Nick Davies published a 4,500 word article in the Guardian in which he claimed that anti-trafficking campaigners had created a ‘moral panic’ around trafficking, and that, "The UK's biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution", which suggested that there are few victims. What the investigation actually found is that the police failed to find traffickers, and that on the rare occasions that they did, juries failed to convict.
But that story is nowhere near as sexy as the one that Davies and his acolytes would have us believe. It is far more appealing to most to accept a line that, aside from the rare exception, the foreign women that pack out the brothels across the UK popped on a plane in their country of origin and found themselves a job flogging flesh to strangers.
Davies’ article ran at the height of a huge debate in parliament and amongst campaigners about whether or not to criminalise the buyers of sexual services in order to make the UK unappealing to traffickers, as was successfully introduced in Sweden in 1999, and in a number of other countries since.
The investigation earned Davies a nomination at the annual Erotic Awards, an event run by a pornographer. Davies, however, did not pick up the prize - a bust of a golden flying penis.
That same year saw the publication of an academic study published that was also used by campaigners for legalisation of the sex industry as ‘evidence’ that trafficking is a rare and much exaggerated occurrence.
The author of ‘Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry’ is Nick Mai, an academic, sexual libertarian and a vocal activist campaigning for legalisation. Mai’s London-based study consisted of interviews with 100 people working in various capacities in the sex industry. From this research Mai concluded that only a minority of ‘migrant sex workers’ have been trafficked. However, interviewees included at least four ‘managers’ (one of whom was convicted of human trafficking), two maids, one dancer and one man who appears to be a buyer. Interviews were conducted in brothels, often when the owner or manager was present. Two of the interviewees were, at the time, operating as dominatrix prostitutes and involved in pro-legalisation campaigns.
Left or Right, Brothels are Alright
Soon after being elected as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson published a strategy on ending violence towards women and girls in which he identified sex trafficking as a major human rights violation. However, he is also one of the skeptics who has argued that much concern about trafficking is ‘hype’ and ‘fabrication’.
In ‘The Spectator’ in 2005 Johnson wrote that anti-trafficking campaigners had, “Worried the government so much that the Home Office has plans for a new scheme to provide ‘safe-houses’ for the victims of sex trafficking.” But Johnson had his facts wrong. The Poppy Project had been in existence for more than two years when Johnson wrote his article and had accommodated scores of victims, most of whom had been referred by the police, and all of whom had undergone an assessment to ensure they were genuine victims.
Shockingly, Johnson claimed that the majority of women were aware that they were coming into the UK to work in a brothel, and were not in the main forced into it.
Johnson and other skeptics wrongly believe that, as he puts it, “Accounts of widespread cruelty by brothel owners are easy to believe, but do not stand up to scrutiny.”
Along with a number of others from various political persuasions such as Brendon O’Neil, a former supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party and Andrew Boff, Conservative member of the London Assembly, Boris Johnson dismissed widespread concerns amongst anti-trafficking activists that trafficking of women increases during large sporting events, citing the German World Cup as an example.
But the German police mainly carried out searches to look for women without legal entry papers. Given that large numbers of women in brothels are from countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that are now part of the European Union, looking for evidence of trafficking mainly based on legal documents is an outdated strategy in a Europe that increasingly is increasingly borderless.
Given that large numbers of women in brothels are from countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that are now part of the European Union, looking for evidence of trafficking mainly based on legal documents is an outdated strategy in a Europe that increasingly is increasingly borderless.
Andrew Boff, another supporter of a legalised sex industry, published his report ‘Silence on Violence’ in 2012 in which he explores whether sex trafficking increases as a result of large international sporting events. Boff concludes it does not. In the report Boff extensively quotes from the pro-prostitution lobby such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), an organisation that views prostitution as legitimate work, and the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), a pressure group that encourages buyers and ‘managers’, as well as people selling sex, to join.
Nick Mai, and at least three of his advisory board and two of his research team, were members of the IUSW at the time his research was conducted.
It Happens Here
But despite claims by the skeptics, a number of other reports show clearly that trafficking of both women and children into the UK is on the increase, and that traffickers are finding new and more terrifying ways to evade detection.
In 2013 the Centre for Social Justice published ‘It Happens Here’, which calls for calls for the appointment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner in the UK to improve the patchy responses and relative lack of knowledge on how to tackle trafficking. One shocking figure from the report is the estimate that 60 percent of trafficked children in local authority care go missing. President Obama, in the foreword to the report, names trafficking ‘modern slavery’.
Between 2003 and 2013 the Poppy Project responded to 2161 referrals, resulting in the provision of supported accommodation to 350 women, and outreach support to 451. Many more received advice and referrals to other support services. How can the crime of trafficking into prostitution be, as claimed by the likes of Davies, Boff and Mai, a rare occurrence?
In London the off-street industry is becoming so saturated that traffickers are selling their merchandise on the streets. Research commissioned, ironically, by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and published in 2014 found that several east London boroughs have identified evidence of Romanian women and girls selling sex on the street and ‘overtaking the market’ from the local women. Pimps have been seen extracting the money earned by the women from panels in lampposts in full view of passers by. I am told that the police turn a blind eye and locals are too scared to intervene. There are several reports of a ‘Godfather’-like figure in control of the women.
Victims of trafficking tend to be vulnerable, uneducated young women who have already experienced abuse at home, but the fact is that it is a fate that can befall anyone with the misfortune to meet a pimp. In the late 1990s, traffickers set up a stall and attempted to recruit women into prostitution at a Freshers’ Fair at a Ukrainian University. In 2001 I was witness to an auction of trafficked women in a market in Bosnia where women, shivering and naked, were made to stand on orange crates being prodded like cattle for sale.
In the late 1990s, traffickers set up a stall and attempted to recruit women into prostitution at a Freshers’ Fair at a Ukrainian University. In 2001 I was witness to an auction of trafficked women in a market in Bosnia where women, shivering and naked, were made to stand on orange crates being prodded like cattle for sale.
In 2012 the Metropolitan Police Human Trafficking Unit investigated 45 cases of suspected sex trafficking involving 125 victims. One of its specialist investigations was Operation Coleburn, on a single brothel in central London that was found to have an annual turnover in excess of £1.2m. And the latest research from the European Union Commission and the Centre for Social Justice shows that trafficking of women into sex slavery is alive and well.
I met Elda recently at a charity supporting trafficking victims. Elda was 18 years old when she was kidnapped from the village of Durres, a major seaport in Albania, into London in 2008 where she was forced to work in a brothel. Although many traffickers are involved in organised crime, such as drug and gun running, some are merely individual men who see an opportunity to make money from prostitution. The man who abducted Elda was her 25-year-old neighbour.
Elda could not escape because she owed the trafficking gang £15,000 for her transportation and ‘agency fees’. She would sexually service between seven and 10 men a day but the brothel owner charged her for meals, towels and condoms.
I am told by support workers from the Poppy Project that what happened to Elda is routine. The traffickers take their documents, tell them the police would arrest them if they escaped, and then keep all the money they earn.
The women that come to the Poppy Project describe horrific instances of cruelty and debasement. They have been raped to ‘break them in’ for work at the brothel, given drugs to make them compliant and increase the physical pain they can endure from punters, and told they are whores and worthless.
A fascinating book by the investigative journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai clearly shows the abuse and degradation suffered by brothel workers.
To research ‘Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers’ Pai worked as a maid in several brothels in England. She eloquently describes the horror and suffering endured by the migrant women she observed in the brothels. “Apart from verbal abuse, Grace, the brothel owner, treated the women like cargo,” writes Pai, “swapping them as she pleased. Grace's pet name for one Romanian, Cathy, was "you ugly cunt".
During brothel raids, police often overlook signs of women being trafficked because they are looking for signs of force and violence. Traffickers are careful to ensure that their merchandise appears to be healthy and well-fed, and tell the women to say they are happy working as prostitutes. In reality the women are terrified of the police, who they assume are in league with the traffickers - as they often are in their home countries.
Nick Sumner, Detective Chief Inspector within the Metropolitan Police Human Exploitation and Organised Crime Command, says that organised criminality is interwoven throughout the off-street sex trade, where huge sums of money are made from the controlling of prostitution. According to Sumner, currently over 90 per cent of prostitutes in London brothels are migrants to the UK. But as far as the trafficking deniers are concerned these women are simply willing ‘migrant sex workers’ and all that stands in the way of prostitution as a great profession is the total removal of all prostitution laws.
But recent research on the impact of legalised prostitution found that countries with this regime, such as Germany and the Netherlands, experience larger reported inflows of human trafficking. Led by the London School of Economics, the research shows that legalisation has been a gift to traffickers and pimps who, overnight, become legitimate businessmen.
The majority of trafficking victims across the globe are heading for the sex industry, because that’s where the pimps make big money. To say there are not many victims because of a lack of convictions is like saying that Jimmy Savile did not really abuse any children. Another trafficking skeptic, Laura Agustin, author of ‘Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry’ even claims that student loans are as troublesome as a trafficking victim being debt-bonded to the trafficker. Agustin, a prolific writer about the joys of ‘sex work’, is one of the recipients of the golden flying penis for her work as a ‘campaigner’ at the Erotic Awards.
In the meantime, women and children continue to be used and abused by punters who get away with it, and make pots of money not for themselves but for the pimps and traffickers. Nothing seems to have changed despite decades of human rights campaigns to end this atrocity. In fact, with the help of the skeptics, it has become markedly worse.
In the words of Victor Hugo in Les Misérables: “It is said that slavery has disappeared from European civilization. This is a mistake. It still exists; but now it weighs only upon the woman, and it is called prostitution.”
Main photo credit: Savvas Alexandrou, 2014