The new slave trade?

The term ‘trafficking’ depoliticises the debate about immigration and makes everyone into a pathetic victim.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

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Take a look down your street. What do you see?

If you live in Britain, it is probably a normal British scene: there will be houses and flats, some of them rented out to people from the new EU member states; maybe some are rented out to young people from states outside the EU and outside of Europe. Stop there. Did you know that behind many boring suburban facades there are thousands of women and children who have either been kidnapped from their country, or lured to Britain under false pretences, and then forced to work in brothels as modern-day slaves?

According to the UK government, this is the dreadful reality in Britain today, and it’s a rapidly growing problem. Over the past few years, the problem of trafficking has become increasingly high-profile. This year, the UK Human Trafficking Centre has launched its ‘Blue Blindfold’ campaign to raise awareness about how to spot trafficking (1), and already the London Olympics have been flagged up as an event that is likely to lead to an enormous increase in the number of women being trafficked here for prostitution (2).

This month, the Police and Crime Bill 2009 is going through the final stages in the House of Commons. It contains measures to target the clients of prostitutes, and makes it illegal to pay for sex with a prostitute who is working for the benefit of someone else, or who is controlled by pimps or who has been trafficked. UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith argues on her departmental website: ‘I want to do everything we can to protect the thousands of vulnerable women coerced, exploited or trafficked into prostitution in our country, and to bring those who take advantage of them to justice.’ Under the terms of this new offence, a client can be prosecuted even if he has done his best to find out whether the woman has been trafficked, and believes, to the best of his knowledge, that she has not been (3).

This new piece of legislation is a strange law. Firstly, most of the things that are said to occur in cases of trafficking and forced prostitution – rape, kidnap, aiding illegal immigration and so on – are already crimes. Pimping is also already illegal, and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it an offence to cause or incite prostitution or control it for personal gain. There is also legislation that deals with trafficking as a specific criminal activity. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 makes trafficking people for the purposes of prostitution illegal. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes trafficking for any kind of sexual exploitation a crime, and the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 makes trafficking for any purpose whatsoever a crime.

Secondly, as with a significant amount of New Labour legislation, this latest law will challenge some of the basic tenets of criminal law. As The Economist points out, while ignorance of the law is not considered a defence, ignorance of the facts often is (4). If someone is duped or tricked into breaking the law, they are not generally considered to be as guilty as if they had deliberately set out to break the law. The person who, unawares and in all good faith, marries a bigamist is not generally considered equally culpable as the bigamist. Now, however, a man who sleeps with an allegedly trafficked woman will be culpable, even if he strongly and reasonably believes she was not trafficked.

However, whatever the peculiarities of the legislation itself, is it not a good thing that the government is seriously targeting modern-day slavery? Who, after all, could object to legislation against sex slavery? In fact, it is worth looking at what trafficking actually means. Britain takes its definition from the commonly used definition given by the UN in 2000: ‘“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.’ (5)

This is a broad definition that elides two distinct things: forcible and non-consensual transportation, or abduction, and someone voluntarily paying another person to smuggle them into a foreign country. This elision is typical of general discussions and debates on trafficking. For example, Harriet Harman, the minister for women and equalities, describes women who have entered the UK through traffickers as part of ‘a modern slave trade’. The Metropolitan police estimate that 70 per cent of the 88,000 women involved in prostitution in England and Wales are under the control of traffickers, a figure it can only have reached by, again, blurring the distinction between abducted women and those who pay to be smuggled here (6).

However, there is an extremely important distinction to be made between people who pay someone to help them enter a country illegally, and who then go on to work as prostitutes, and people who have been kidnapped and are being kept as prisoners and forced to work as prostitutes against their will. The feminist writer Julie Bindel has conducted some research into London’s brothels and has established that a large number of London’s prostitutes are foreign-born (7). But this does not mean that these women, as Bindel implies, have been tricked or coerced into coming to Britain and then forced to work in brothels.

Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes argued on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the vast majority of prostitution in the UK is consensual and that the government’s figures on trafficking have no basis in reality (8). In 2000 and 2001, high-profile raids in Soho, ostensibly in the name of protecting trafficked women, led to protests from prostitutes who claimed that they were working consensually and that the government was using trafficking as an excuse to deport them. At the time the Guardian interviewed a ‘maid’ who claimed that most of the women in Soho were working for themselves and had turned to prostitution as a way of surviving in difficult circumstances:

‘Judy says a lot of the women were asylum seekers, some with babies and young children. “They were starving while they waited for their vouchers to come through and, like Irina, they ended up here because they didn’t know any other way to make money to feed themselves and their kids. They didn’t have drug problems like some of the English girls – they didn’t even drink – and they sent hundreds of pounds home to their families.”’ (9)

Certainly Operation Pentameter, launched by the police in 2006, failed to uncover thousands of sex slaves. Operation Pentameter was a major policy operation during which police visited approximately 10 per cent of brothels in the UK. In the 515 premises they visited, they ‘rescued’ 188 women and confirmed that 84 were trafficked ‘victims’. The police report, however, fails to specify whether these women were actually being held against their will or whether they had simply entered the country illegally, although the report does state that none of the women had entered the country covertly (for example, smuggled in a lorry). Nonetheless, the police warn that this is but the tip of the iceberg (10). Operation Pentameter II was launched in 2007, but so far it is not clear how many prosecutions have been brought about. This is not to claim that there are no cases of forced prostitution, but to point out that government claims of thousands of ‘modern-day slaves’ do not stand up to scrutiny.

The real problem with the term trafficking, and the gothic imagery that it conjures up, is that it completely depoliticises any debate on prostitution. By presenting foreign prostitutes simply as victims who need to be rescued, the government erases all of the complex reasons why people might turn to prostitution in certain situations. Yet as the interview with a ‘maid’ in the Guardian seems to suggest, for some women prostitution might be something they turn to in the absence of the possibility of other work. This scenario takes us away from the super-moralised trafficking discourse and leads us to a very different and political discussion about immigration and restrictions on people’s movement and labour.

As long as people seek a better life, and as long as there remain strict restrictions on migration, then people will enter states illegally. Some women (and men) involved in this kind of movement will end up selling sex. This is the situation stripped of all the excitement of ‘trafficking’. Yet this more prosaic truth can also help us to start coming up with some potentially radical and meaningful solutions, rather than further stigmatising prostitutes and their clients.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international relations at Brunel University.

(1) UK Human Trafficking Centre; Blue Blindfold

(2) London Olympics targeted by trade in sex trafficking and illegal workers, UK Independent, 24 March 2007

(3) New rules to protect exploited women, Home Office, 18 November 2008

(4) Prostitution in Britain, The Economist, 20 November 2008

(5) UK Human Trafficking Centre

(6) For men who pay for sex with trafficked women, ignorance is no longer a defence, Guardian, 19 November 2008

(7) Revealed: the truth about brothels, Guardian, 10 September 2008

(8) Listen to the Niki Adams and Jacqui Smith discussion, Today, 19 November 2008

(9) Foreign bodies, 20 February 2001

(10) Pentameter operational overview

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Topics Politics


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