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.

Welcome common sense as police chiefs reject red light toleration zones

See: Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Police chiefs say no to red light ‘toleration zones’.

Red light toleration zones seem such a good idea. After all, they have them in Amsterdam, and everyone knows that the Dutch lead the way in a happy, liberal society with low teenage pregnancy and freedom for all. What’s more, any discussion about sexual politics always ends up with someone pointing out that things get worse if you drive them underground.

But myself, I couldn’t agree less. You see, I’ve lived in Holland, and I’ve worked with victims of people trafficking and the sex industry.

There is simply no way of organising the sex trade that makes it anything other than sordid. Although it’s always possible to find individual sex workers who boldly proclaim that they chose their career themselves and wouldn’t have it any other way, the broader facts speak all too clearly.

Statistically, you are far more likely to find your way into prostitution if you have been in care as a teenager, or if you have suffered child abuse. Among other studies, background to this is available in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation / NSPCC study Choice and Opportunity Project: Young women and sexual exploitation. In that study of 55 13-18 year old women, 39 had been in care or looked after by the local authority.

A very high proportion of people who are trafficked in Europe (read ‘sold as slaves’) end up in the sex trade. Street prostitution is dangerous and humiliating for those who practice it, but building based prostitution is the real power base of sex traffickers – it is simply so much easier to coerce, intimidate and imprison in those circumstances. Legalised brothels in Amsterdam, and tolerated establishments in Belgium, have merely given the traffickers a safer and more defined market. A particularly disturbing report into the trafficking of children into the UK can be found here: Children – what the professionals know

But tolerance zones for street prostitution don’t help either. The control mechanisms that pimps use don’t depend on the legality of what sex workers do. The Home Office estimates that 95% of people working on the streets are using heroin or crack. The introduction of tolerance zones will not benefit these workers.

But what are the alternatives?

The Association of Chief Police Officers vice strategy, published today, is especially to be welcomed because it favours setting up safe houses and exit schemes. This is perhaps surprising coming from police chiefs, since in local situations it is often the police who favour Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and other penalty based approaches to tackling prostitution. From a police point of view, legalising brothels and tolerance zones would get the problem off their books. Exit schemes are a much harder — but better — approach to take.

Their new strategy perhaps reflects the realisation that the current practice of fining girls for soliciting only puts them back on the streets with a need to earn more cash fast.

But there is one legislative approach which has met with some success where it has been tried. Instead of fining the girls, fine the customers. One of the subtle and insidious degradations of the UK sex trade is that while sex workers are seen as dirty, cheap, and reprehensible, their clients are often able to continue respectable lives as business men, politicians, even senior policemen. Who has the most to lose by the threat of the courts? The clients. Who do financial penalties most put off repeat offending? The clients. Who is most threatened by their names and pictures appearing in local papers after a successful conviction? The clients.

It is a reflection of the nasty double standards that persist in the UK sex industry that this approach is often rejected at the local level. It appears that key figures veto it without giving any reasons.

You don’t have to think about it for very long to work out why.

People trafficking should be at the top of the world’s agenda – but it isn’t.

See BBC NEWS | England | London | Human smuggling racket ‘smashed’ and BBC News | A Modern Slave’s Brutal Odyssey

People trafficking should be at the top of the world’s agenda. Along with modern slavery – unpaid labour under the threat of violence – it is the most widespread form of man’s inhumanity to man. Slave produced products include Chinese paperclips, carpets from India, Pakistan and Nepal, chocolate from the Ivory Coast, charcoal from Brazil, and sugar from the Dominican Republic (Source Abolish.

20 million people across the world (source UN) are subject to bonded labour. Up to 179 million children suffer under the worst forms of child labour (source ILO) An estimated 5 million women and children are trafficked every year (UN). A recent US Government report estimated 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year.

As far as the UK is concerned, Home Office research in 2000 estimated between 142 and 1,420 women and children trafficked into the country each year – but this figure was based solely on reported cases – and trafficking is one of the most clandestine crimes, it’s victims by and large unable to testify.

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