Human trafficking

Human trafficking is more prevalent today than at any time in history.

At last – action on behalf of trafficked women in the UK

The government has finally taken action on behalf of trafficked women. Under the plan, the Home Office is planning to criminalise paying for sex with a woman “controlled for another person’s gain”. However, the move has already been undermined by cuts to the budget for human trafficking investigations and the closure of the leading unit.

Jacqui Smith came under considerable pressure this morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme, but, effectively, the presenter missed the point. Whatever the views of libertarians (a position which should not be confused with liberalism), the most important action to reduce human trafficking into the UK is to reduce the demand, and the only method open to legislators is the law. Pimps and traffickers have many ways of concealing their linkage with trafficked women. In previous generations, the women themselves have been penalised, often with scant regard for the possibility that they are trafficked or otherwise coerced. Penalising clients who knowingly make use of coerced prostitutes is by far the most reasonable, effective and intelligent approach.

Radio 4 made much of the suggestion that a man might unwittingly make use of the services of a coerced woman, believing that this was not the case. However, this is not legally dissimilar to any case of people who recklessly purchase stolen goods or profit by other illegal activity without making reasonable enquiries. There is a strong body of case law and police practice to prevent the innocent from facing charges.

Objections from the English Collective of Prostitutes are similarly misguided: women who choose prostitution will not be affected by this. In fact, this is progressive legislation, because, in the past, almost all legislation regarding prostitution has focused on penalising prostitutes themselves. It is not very long ago that the same government was introducing ASBOs and CRASBOs which, frequently, resulted in prostitutes facing fines which they could only pay by returning to prostitution — a vicious cycle which could have been anticipated, but was not.

At its most simple, we have to face the question: does any man ever have the right to sex with a woman who is coerced into doing so? There are few questions where the result is so clear cut. No human being has this right. It is a fundamental violation of the very basis of human rights. In that case, we are left asking: why has this not been illegal for some time? This is a much more difficult question to answer, and a much more promising line of attack which Radio 4 might have considered pursuing. Given that there is widespread awareness of the problem of human trafficking, most men who use prostitutes must have some inkling that there is a possibility that the people they are dealing with are either traffickers or trafficked women. In that case, why have men not banded together before to drive the traffickers out of business? A lot of work was done on this question in Belgium in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the publication of the seminal ‘Ze zijn zo lief, menheer’, by Chris de Stoop. In Belgium, where prostitution is effectively legal in all its forms (and therefore a counter example to those who argue that legalising and regulating prostitution will end people trafficking), 1/3 of men are estimated to use prostitutes, and, as de Stoop demonstrated, high numbers were aware of the status of the women they were using. De Stoop explored the reasons for which men engaged in activity which, when considered in the coldest light of morning, was utterly brutal and degrading, and was not (as it is often put) ‘equivalent to a modern form of slavery’, but is, in fact, with no qualifications, slavery itself. The most commonly occurring ‘reason’ became the title for the book “because they’re so nice”.

After many, many years of campaigns, the government is finally doing something. They should be applauded. But there is much work still to do, and, if they are serious, they must now reinstate cut funds for trafficking investigation.

Whether or not the police are ever funded to enforce the new laws — a serious issue, given the recent cuts — the fact that sex with trafficked women will become illegal is a massive step forward in itself. Far too often, the most compelling argument put forward by people engaged in activities of this type is “if it was that bad, it would be against the law”. At last, it will be.

Banning prostitution is not the answer — but fining the clients might be

BBC NEWS | Politics | UK should outlaw paying for sex

After endless amounts of backwards and forwards discussion, Harriet Harman is considering “banning” prostitution. Her reasons are something I applaud – to reduce the sex market, thereby decreasing the profits of sex-trafficking, and moving towards eliminating the modern slave-trade.

Actually, though, ‘banning’ is something that patently does not work as far as what is generally referred to as ‘vice’ is concerned. The American experiment with Prohibition of Alcohol is invariably cited as the case in point. On the other hand, the solution recommended by the English Collective of Prostitutes – to legalise building-based prostitution, as has been done in New Zealand – has also been proven not to work. In Amsterdam and across Belgium, building-based prostitution has been shown as the best of all worlds for people-traffickers. Their victims are out of sight, easy to control.

This sounds like the counsel of despair. If banning doesn’t work, and if legalisation doesn’t work, we are almost at the point of saying that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – and what a terrible world that is.

Some solutions, have yet to be tried. It has been hinted at in radio interviews, but the best solution is to target the clients. Any kind of restrictions on sex-workers invariably results in more pressure by pimps and traffickers on illegal immigrants. The threat of law is used against the victims. What’s more, those involved in semi-consensual sex, which is most prostitutes, can only pay the fines that are currently dished out to them in magistrates’ courts by engaging in more prostitution. Targeting the clients, on the other hand, goes (as the Inland Revenue say) ‘where the money is’. There are at least three kinds of prostitutes: trafficked women, semi-consensual prostitutes, and (most often heard on the radio) prostitutes who choose to do what they do. There is only one kind of client: men who want sex, and are prepared to pay for it. The experience of research in Belgium is that men are unwilling to distinguish between the three kinds. Target the clients, and the market reduces.

However, this approach can only be pursued if routes are created out of prostitution for those who want to exit the trade. This is not only for trafficked women. There are plenty of semi-consensual prostitutes, working to pay for drug-habits, or because their economic situation is one for which they cannot find another solution. We don’t (as yet) have sufficiently integrated paths out of drug-use. Any way out needs to be carefully constructed at a local level to provide drug rehabilitation, dental treatment (almost always essential for drug users), training for employment, social housing, and more. This can only happen if we commit to it as a society: far too often initiatives of this kind are held back because ‘ordinary’ people (or their local political representatives) say that they don’t want public money to go on helping people out of their own bad choices to this extent. It’s the same argument that says that teenage girls get pregnant in order to get housing benefit. True, or not? Hard to say. But irrelevant. In a civilised society, we need to invest in people’s lives to bring them back into mainstream society, no matter how they fell out of it. If we are not willing to pay the price, then we must accept that we will never approach an answer to human trafficking.

Which makes all of us guilty.

Freedom Sunday — why I entered politics

Today is Freedom Sunday, 25 March 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and the focus of a new generation of campaigners against the modern slave trade. It coincides with the release of the film Amazing Grace recounting the life of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a politician who became an evangelical Christian and then dedicated his life to a programme of social reforms, the most famous of which — and at the time the most unpopular and controversial — was the abolition of slavery.

Wilberforce stands as a powerful example to both Christians and to politicians. But it was not the example of Wilberforce, but direct contact with human trafficking, which brought me into politics.
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Birmingham Raid uncovers tip of the iceberg

Yesterday’s raid on a Sauna in Birmingham uncovered the tip of the iceberg of the UK’s sex-trafficking industry. 19 women were rescued from allegedly forced prostitution, from Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Poland and Turkey.

The Birmingham police deserve every congratulation for facing up to the situation and taking action. But there is far, far more to be done.

The UN estimates that 5 million women and children are trafficked each year. This means that every three years, as many people are sold in slavery in the modern world as were sold during the 315 of the Atlantic slave trade. Nobody knows how many are trafficked in the UK each year — itself a damning indictment of our failure to begin to tackle the problem.

Key factors in the growth of sex trafficking in Britain include the following. First, in tackling prostitution our legal system has tended to penalise sex-workers while failing to go after pimps, and doing little to discourage the clients. Secondly, the growing tolerance for building-based prostitution creates an environment where traffickers can easily control their victims. Third, the UK heavily penalises people who are illegally in this country, even where they are victims of human trafficking. Chillingly, in yesterday’s raid, several of the girls are being held by police while their immigration status is checked. However, the most important factor is a failure by local authorities and central government to take the issue seriously.

While working for charity I was involved in counselling and assisting victims of sex-trafficking in Belgium. It is a long and depressingly fragile process. Belgium has a bad track record for its toleration of this industry. But it has developed some effective support mechanisms for victims, which we would do well to emulate in Britain. There are systems in place for victims to gain immigration status, and help mechanisms to assist them into social housing, language learning and the social security network. All these are missing in Britain.

Ultimately, the Belgian approach is based on the acceptance that sex-trafficking is a crime perpetrated on the victims by Belgian society. It is therefore for Belgian society to redress it.

For as long as we continue to penalise victims, with the occasional foray against the perpetrators to salve our conscience, we in Britain will continue to nurture the conditions which make this trade flourish.

And that is sickening.

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