Sex trafficking: behind the numbers

Last week, the Guardian published a news article and longer report on sex trafficking in the UK. Both wer by heavyweight journalist Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News. In the two pieces, Davies exposes the sloppy way newspapers and politicians have used academic research for political ends, and dishonestly spun the results of a criminal investigation. Davies is of course right to expose this. But he is not right to leap from this to deny that sex trafficking is an issue.

The campaigner Rahila Gupta, author of Enslaved: The New British Slavery, has replied forcefully. Denis MacShane, one of the targets of his piece has replied too. As have a number of academics, also followed up by MacShane again. MacShane's other half, Joan Smith, described by Nick Cohen as "The last principled feminist in the British media", also has a piece too, which I reproduce here as her new blog doesn't seem to work very well yet.

Guardian gets its moral panics in a twist
Tuesday 20 October 2009
Joan Smith

Sex trafficking is mostly a myth, says the Guardian, got up by an ‘an unlikely union of evangelical Christians with feminist campaigners’. Rumours that a team of investigative reporters is currently combing archives, searching for pictures of me and Julie Bindel in our Salvation Army uniforms, may be unfounded. But the headline on today’s front page is unequivocal: ‘Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution’.

Goodness me! Did this inquiry visit British prisons, where they could meet (for instance) Viktoras Larcenko and Luan Plakici, two of the most notorious traffickers ever convicted in this country? Don’t take my word for it: four years ago, the Crown Prosecution Service reported the successful conviction of Larcenko for conspiracy to traffic in prostitution and conspiracy to launder money. It described him as ‘the last member of a gang convicted for smuggling girls from Lithuania in 2003 and forcing them into prostitution with threats and violence’. The five-member gang included his sister Rita, aged 20, and they were sentenced in total to 51 years in prison.

The Plakici case is even more notorious. It attracted a great deal of media attention, not least in a respected national newspaper which just happens to be the Guardian’s stablemate. ‘The money to be made from human trafficking was revealed in 2003 when an Albanian, Luan Plakici, was jailed for 10 years after trafficking up to 60 women from Moldova and Romania’, the Observer reported. ‘Plakici had over £200,000 in the bank, several palatial homes and drove a Ferrari’. [His sentence was later increased on appeal.]

The Observer went on to say that ‘many trafficked women are either impoverished, without families or already victims of sexual violence when they leave their country of origin. Most have come willingly with their traffickers, believing they are being smuggled, not sold into bondage. The truth is completely different’.

It certainly is, according to today’s Guardian, which dismisses such claims as a ‘moral panic’. The paper grudgingly acknowledges that ‘some prosecutions have been made’ but cites statistics showing that many people arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking have been released or charged with unrelated offences. This is true but the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, in its report entitled The Trade in Human Beings: Trafficking in the UK, draws a rather different conclusion.

‘Because of the brutality of many traffickers, victims are terrified about giving information’, it observes, and goes on to list the many other obstacles to successful prosecution, not just in sex-trafficking cases: ‘As a result of these difficulties, by spring 2008 there had been no prosecutions for the trafficking of migrant domestic workers, no prosecution for forced labour (in the four years since a specific offence was introduced), and no successful conviction of anyone for trafficking an African child’. There had been ‘more than 70 successful prosecutions for sex trafficking’ but ‘many of our witnesses expressed disappointment at the low rate of prosecutions and convictions for trafficking’. The Committee noted that because of the difficulty of obtaining successful prosecutions, the police and CPS ‘often resorted to joint or alternative charges such as rape, sexual assault, blackmail, coercion, violence, false documentation and money laundering’.

Does anyone seriously believe there are no cases of domestic workers brought to this country illegally and held against their will? That there is no forced labour or child slavery?

What’s happening here isn’t just an argument about statistics. It’s inspired by opposition to the Government’s Policing and Crime bill, which I wrote about last week on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog (‘Tackling Abuse in Prostitution’, archived on the Blonde Columns page on this website). Sex-trafficking exposes many of the myths about prostitution, which is why we are going to see a rash of stories minimising or denying its existence in this country.

This agenda benefits from what’s been called the ‘Al Capone’ approach, which means prosecuting traffickers for whichever offences seem most likely to lead to a successful conviction. According to the Home Affairs Committee, ‘the comparatively low rate of prosecutions for trafficking as such adds to the confusion about the incidence of trafficking in the UK’. One likely result, the MPs say, is that some authorities may ‘underestimate the severity of the problem’.

Quite. You’ll have to excuse me now, but I’m late for my radical feminist evangelical Christian anti-sex prayer meeting.


jams o donnell said…
Bob Can I join you at that meeting? Even if few women were forcefully abducted to become prostitutes, how many were conned into it on a different pretext and then found what "sanctions" faced them if they didn't comply.
Cadiz said…
The UKHTC, Border agencies etc. concentrated on arresting ordinary prostituted women, some filmed in reality Tv stunts, and portraying them as sex traffickers.

I don't think allowing Poppy/Eaves to become the sole recipient of funding, was particularly wise.

I reckon Nick Davies rather spoilt the impact of his article by essentially endorsing groups campaigning for the New Zealand model of legal brothel-keeping.
Anonymous said…
"how many were conned into it on a different pretext and then found what "sanctions" faced them if they didn't comply."

Exactly, it is as if being a pimp, was a good thing, for the want of being an evil sex trafficker.

Like pimps always pay the girls etc. Dream on, not in any country under a yellow sun.
Hi guys...Sexual slavery or forced sexual slavery is the organized coercion of unwilling people into different sexual practices. The incidence of sexual slavery by country has been studied and tabulated by UNESCO, with the cooperation of various international agencies. Sexual slavery may include single-owner sexual slavery, ritual slavery sometimes associated with traditional religious practices, slavery for primarily non-sexual purposes where sex is common, or forced prostitution.

In general, the nature of slavery means that the slave is de facto available for sexual intercourse, and ordinary social conventions and legal protections that would otherwise constrain an owner's actions are not effective. For example, extramarital sex between a married man and a slave was not considered adultery in most societies that accepted slavery.
Marlene said…
Little doubt, the dude is completely fair.

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