Sex Trafficking

Argus article : Stamp out this vile trade in humanity sold into sexual servitude

In the mid 1990s I stumbled across a story which filled me with horror. A police officer told me that young girls were going missing from Worthing and other places close by in Sussex. At least one had disappeared from Hove.

There was no local or national scandal. I’d seen nothing in the press, no horrified statements from politicians, religious leaders or any other prominent citizens. It seemed beyond belief – that girls in their early teens could apparently vanish into thin air from the soporific streets of West Sussex.

They were not British girls, but Nigerian, the majority in their early teens. In most cases, they arrived unaccompanied at Gatwick Airport, were placed in foster or care homes, and then simply disappeared. Those who interviewed them reported that they seemed very frightened.

Police attempting to investigate the matter 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 they were children in the care of a local authority, and were in effect being abducted, legal opinion at that time was that no criminal offence had been committed, because trafficking itself was not illegal.

In 2001 Tim Loughton, M.P. for East Worthing and Shoreham, called for legislative changes to make trafficking a crime, but by that time up to 64 girls had disappeared from care in West Sussex.

Tim Loughton rightly described trafficking as a “grotesque and unacceptable” modern slave trade. However, 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. And there is as yet no effective international campaign against it. In fact, prostitution and the trafficking of women is the third highest ‘black market’ income-earner globally (after arms and drugs).

‘Old’ forms of slavery bought and sold the bodies of men, women and children for the purpose of labour on plantations. It is true that in modern times the bodies of men and women are trafficked so they may labour on low wages in unprotected conditions for criminal ‘gangers’ who make a fortunes selling the product of their labour to the British people.

However, by far the largest group of modern day slaves are women and girls sold into sexual servitude. A new report from the UN “Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns” is a comprehensive survey of people-trafficking. It cites 127 countries from which women are trafficked and 137 countries which are favoured as destinations. It confirms that the majority of trafficked human beings are women enslaved within the sex trade.

A 2003 report estimates that close to a million people are trafficked across borders for this purpose and that up to half a million of them ‘work’ in the ‘old’ countries of the European Community. Many are trafficked from impoverished Eastern European countries. The Poppy Project, which works with trafficked women, reported in 2004 that women trafficked to the UK tend to be from Moldova, Romania, Albania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Thailand, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Home Office research found that up to 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation in 1998, the last year for which figures are available. Figures issued by the police suggest that in London alone, 5,000 women are working in the sex industry and are forced to see between 20 – 30 men a day.

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.”

There is no shortage of buyers. Recent research indicates that in the UK an increasing number of young men use brothels and pay for sex. In a recent article in the Independent, journalist Deborah Orr wrote “In a chilling insight into the sporting life, it is estimated that anything up to 40,000 extra sex workers are likely to be smuggled into (Germany) in the coming weeks, in anticipation of huge demand for prostitutes during the World Cup”.

Trafficked women are frequently told they will be found well-paid work as chamber maids or in bars. Others know they are destined for prostitution, but believe they will be well paid and able to work in safe conditions. The reality is very different.

Sussex Police’s Dt Sgt Mick Jones, who works at Gatwick Airport, said “They may be raped repeatedly and violently. They have no freedom or control over who they see and how often. They may be sold on many times and with each sale their value decreases. Often, if they are from within the European Union, their passports are taken and these are used to bring other women in from countries outside the Union. They are told there’s no point asking for help from the police because they don’t want them here.”

It is reported that traffickers have become so confident that it is not uncommon for them to buy and sell women in airports. They have little fear. Over the years there have been remarkably few arrests.

Det Supt Bob Murrill, Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Maxim, which targets organised crime in London, recently told the BBC “The majority of these offenders go undetected. I would say it is out of control…politicians, society and law enforcement need to wake up to exactly what is happening.”

Operation Pentameter, a joint operation involving police from all parts of the country and the Government has targeted the problem of sex trafficking. There have been a number of raids on brothels and many women have been found living in appalling conditions of servitude. These have led to at least 154 arrests. However, there is widespread concern at the absence of a government strategy for care of victims. Campaigners and the police recognize that this is grossly unfair to the women and undermines prosecutions.

Amnesty states: “There is a current lack of clear and automatic protection for those who escape from trafficking or who are discovered by the authorities. This compounds the abuse that many have already suffered… “.

All too often victims are deported or encouraged to go home before they can provide good evidence. Almost all have been beaten and threatened by their captors and many have been told by their traffickers that the police will not help them. In the absence of care, safe housing and proper support services, it is understandable that some women believe them.

The European Convention Against Trafficking was agreed and opened for signature in Strasbourg on 17th May 2005. One year on it has still not been ratified by the UK, though the government has signaled its ‘intention’ to sign. Twenty seven other members of the 46-member Council of Europe have signed up, including Italy and Germany.

This Convention guarantees trafficked people:
* a breathing period of at least 30 days during which they can receive support to aid their recovery, including safe housing and emergency medical support;
* temporary residence permits for victims who may be in danger if they return to their country, and/or if it is necessary to assist criminal proceedings.

The UK government frequently refuses asylum claims by people traumatized by rape, torture or murder. It hounds people, all too often sending them back to the countries in which they suffered horrific abuse. And yet, the government maintains some of the most porous borders in the world, over which there is a continuous flow both of drugs and of trafficked women. And recent events have shown that few foreign criminals are deported.

In a recent edition of “Panorama” an immigration official made a crude, but very telling, distinction between ordinary asylum seekers or illegal immigrants and violent or organized criminals. He claimed that the government’s obsession with deporting increasing numbers of asylum seekers has driven target-led immigration officials to deport ‘soft targets’, who pose no threat to society, rather than violent criminals who do. The Home Office’s decision to expel women rather than help them and allow them to remain to support prosecutions is entirely consistent with this flawed policy.

The Government has criminalised trafficking and acted to prosecute some traffickers, but this is not enough.

It must guarantee the rights and safety of victims. This is why it must sign up to the European Convention. And why all Sussex M.P.s should sign the Early Day Motion urging them to do so.

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