Argus title : It’s time we lifted the lid on modern slavery to expose the horrors of trafficking in women
In this column I tend to write about people I know – or at least know about. But this time it’s different.
I don’t know the name of the people I’m writing about. I don’t know what they look like or how old they are. I don’t even know for sure where they are, though I’m pretty certain they’re in Brighton.
These are trafficked people, whose bodies and labour are bought and sold by gangmasters and middlemen, pimps and local entrepreneurs. They are brought from abroad and set to work in Britain because there is a ready market here. Some customers want cheap labour. Others have a taste for the compliant bodies of trapped women. Most people now know about this “modern slave trade” and deplore it, but here in Brighton, though we disapprove of it, we seem to believe that it happens somewhere else.
We know that in the 1990s in Sussex some 64 teenage girls from Nigeria who had arrived unaccompanied at Gatwick Airport, were placed in care in Worthing or Hove, and then disappeared. The Police eventually came to the conclusion that the girls were being trafficked through Sussex and out to Italy where they were almost certainly prostituted.
Despite the fact that the abducted children were in the care of a local authority, legal opinion at that time was that no criminal offence had been committed, because trafficking itself was not illegal. There was no public hue and cry. The girls were foreigners and had gone elsewhere, so nobody seemed to care too much.
A frisson of public horror greeted the revelation that women had been openly bought and sold by sex traffickers outside a Gatwick Airport coffee shop. However, most people seem to have assumed that such traffickers supply markets beyond the borders of Sussex – certainly not one in Brighton & Hove.
We find it easy to accept that trafficked women are deployed within the rotten underbelly of Liverpool, Manchester or London, but not here in Sussex. We cling to the comfortable fiction that in Brighton & Hove “we don’t have a problem with vice”. We are complacently convinced that our very libertarianism and tolerance protects us from such cruel excess.
It defies logic and reason to think that there are no trafficked sex workers here. This city is affluent, close to London, near a port, has a vibrant club and conference trade, markets itself as sexually tolerant and is full of drugs. Rape of young women is a problem. It has no street prostitution, but does have a thriving supply of brothels, which are of course illegal. And if you keep an eye on their advertisements – as I do – you notice that these days some routinely market themselves as offering not just “new” girls, but “different girls every day”.
The investigation that followed last year’s murders of prostitutes in Suffolk confirmed, if any proof were needed, that most prostitutes working by “choice” do so to fund drug habits. Such women are unlikely to willingly move away from their drug supply.
In fact few workers, of any profession, would freely choose to be constantly on the move. So it’s hard to understand how any brothel could legitimately guarantee daily changes of personnel.
Many advertisements in local newspapers make a marketing feature of women’s foreign origins. Currently, many establishments offer “Oriental ladies”, often specifying that they are Korean, Vietnamese, Thai or Japanese.
Long before it was fashionable to do so, Shoreham M.P. Tim Loughton described trafficking as a “grotesque and unacceptable” modern slave trade. What is particularly shocking about this form of slavery is that, despite decades of struggle for women’s rights and equality, it flourishes throughout the developed world and in every affluent country in Europe. We need to recognise that it is therefore almost certainly present in every affluent town and city – and that includes our own.
Prostitution and the trafficking of women is the third highest ‘black market’ income-earner globally (after arms and drugs). Amnesty International states “trafficking in people is understood by the police and by organisations that work with victims to be increasing exponentially – because it is extremely profitable, with ‘high demand’ and little capital outlay needed at the start apart from the willingness to brutalise another person.”
This month, at the launch of the Metroolitan Police’s new Human Trafficking Team, Detective Superintendent Mark Ponting, confirmed that young women from all over the world are being trafficked into Britain. They are promised well-paid work in bars or cafes, but within hours of their arrival are sold to pimps. Typically, they are locked up, raped repeatedly, have their passports removed and are kept without money in order to prevent escape.
Mr Ponting said: “There is some intelligence to suggest that individuals are sold at locations close to airports. One woman could fetch between £6,000 and £8,000. She could then earn her buyer £800 a day.”
According to the Home Office there were 4,000 women and children trafficked
into prostitution in the UK in 2003. A spokesperson from Amnesty International stated: “Based on reports from Social Services, Police, immigration, it is known that at least 250 children were trafficked into the UK between 1999 and 2003. The real figure is likely to be higher according to UNICEF.”
Agencies report that trafficking has increased massively over the last decade, due to profit, demand, EU border changes and ever more highly organised criminal gangs. According to Anti-Slavery International many of those trafficked are here legally.
The typical age of trafficked women is 18-23years old, although many are
younger and are presented as 18 year olds. Often a higher ‘price’ is paid for younger girls, with the youngest recorded victim being just 14. Metropolitan police estimate trafficked women forced into prostitution in London are compelled to see between 20 and 30 men per day.
Amnesty International confirms that the recorded amounts of money being paid for women by traffickers range from £3,000 to £8,000. UNICEF reports that while the price of a woman at market in Romania is £30 – £120, her price in the destination country may be 10 times higher.
The Government has recently made the long-awaited announcement that it will sign the European Convention Against Trafficking, which guarantees minimum standards of protection for trafficked people.
The decision is much to be welcomed. However, the time has come to for local communities to look at how they too can combat this awful trade. It is not enough to pass resolutions and attend commemorative events about a slave trade long past. The best memorial to the victims of that trade would be to ensure that modern day slavery is brought to an end.
Cities such as Brighton & Hove need to look again at local policies and practices regarding the sex trade. Laissez faire policies may seem to have served the city well, but the truth is we simply don’t know what depths of exploitation and greed they may have masked.
There is already evidence that the city may have gone too far in marketing itself as a place in which anything goes. At least one travel agent organising holidays for lesbian and Gay men from the USA has complained that Brighton’s publicity is too explicitly sexual and is therefore repels potential visitors.
The City’s police and Licensing authorities are struggling to limit the proposed rapid expansion of lap-dancing clubs. They know they degrade women and are likely to make the city less safe. However, it’s difficult to argue against such clubs when the Council’s own museum holds a permanent exhibit entitled Dirty Weekend” and displays a postcard of a very young girl in underwear, entitled “new young model”.
Given the realities of modern sex trafficking and the explosion of drugs in the city it will no longer do to simply “keep an eye” on brothels to avoid public disorder. The only way the Police and Council can be sure that sex workers are safe is by lifting the lid on this can of worms and looking underneath. And if women are working or being moved around without true consent, we as a community must co-operate with other Sussex communities to offer protection, advice, treatment and support.
It is, I suppose, just possible that by some miracle sex trafficking has passed us by. However, it’s far more probable that among sex workers currently providing services to our neighbours, visiting stag parties and conference delegates, there are desperate young women, entrapped by the modern slave trade. We may not know their names, but they deserve our help.
Sussex let down the 64 Nigerian girls trafficked from our shores. We should not make the same mistake again.
Such women are our sisters.