Forced into sexual slavery

During the first few days of last month, reports about the police raids of Birmingham massage parlour flooded newspapers all over the world. Police were lauded for “smashing” a trafficking ring and freeing 19 women from forced prostitution. What happened next is indicative of the British justice system’s confused policy on immigration and trafficking. Sofie Buckland reports.

Six of the women taken into custody after the Birmingham raids are now being held in Yarls Wood detention centre awaiting deportation as illegal immigrants. Their status as trafficked women has been completey denied by immigration services.

The Home Office line is that these women have not claimed they were trafficked into the country. Yet it is well-known that many women, under threats to themselves or their families from criminal gangs, are frightened to report their true circumstances. Being treated as criminals, liable for their own illegal entry to Britain, will hardly help these women to feel safe enough to reveal their status.

Agreement to testify against their captors is required in order for women to be treated as victims of trafficking. This is a huge stumbling block for women who are terrified of traffickers because of the brutal treatment they have faced from them.

Should the women involved agree to testify, there is still little adequate provision of safe housing. There are just 25 places at the Home Office funded Poppy Project for victims of trafficking. This despite official estimates in 2001 of 1,420 women being trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation. No specialist shelter is available for girls rescued from traffickers.

The UK is also failing women by refusing to sign the European Convention Against Trafficking, on the grounds it would create an immigration loophole. This treaty sets down basic standards of treatment for victims, including a recognition of their status as victims. It includes a minimum 30 day reflection period during which they must receive housing and medical care and a requirement that women get temporary residence permits if they would be in danger in their home countries or if they choose to cooperate with criminal prosecutions. New Labour is so concerned with not provoking the anti-immigration lobby it is willing to turn a blind eye to the horrific abuses of women and girls trafficked into the sex trade.

In our globalised world it is crucial that measures are in place to protect the ever-increasing numbers of women made vulnerable to traffickers through poverty. Increasing economic inequality disproportionately affects women. That is why there is a constant supply of women ready to answer ads for work abroad, promising high wages for nannies, domestic workers and secretaries. Jobs that never materialise.

The women brought into the UK are predominantly from the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe, but traffickers also target the poor in South Asian countries for prostitution in the US, Canada and Japan. Women desperate to make a living are drawn in by these ads, only to be sold to the highest bidder once across the border, or taken to “breaking grounds” where they are repeatedly raped and beaten into submission before being transferred to brothels and strip clubs. Some victims, particularly younger women and girls, are simply snatched off the streets.

Traffickers are using new technologies such as the internet to expand the global trade in trafficked women. Mail order bride sites promise women signing up a better life in Western Europe or the US, but they often find that forced prostitution awaits them in these countries, rather than an affluent husband.

The willingness of these women to offer themselves up as bought brides often colours perceptions by authorities of their complicity in the crime. It is argued that choosing to sell yourself to a “husband” is not very different from selling yourself into prostitution, or that the women involved know the risks when signing up to sites or replying to ads.

This is a drastic misunderstanding of “choice” as it exists in the world. Some white Western or middle class women may be free or feel free to “choose” prostitution and other forms of sex work. But women trafficked into the sex trade are victims, who have not made a free choice and they certainly should be held responsible for their actions.

A choice between answering an ad with a risk that it isn’t genuine, and failing to earn enough to feed one’s family is no choice at all.The government is effectively blaiming women for choosing a way out of poverty. The fact that women will risk being raped, beaten and even killed for the chance to earn a living wage speaks volumes about the situation women find themselves in all over the world.

The realities of life for women drawn into trafficking should be the focus of police procedures, not their willingness to cooperate with high-profile prosecutions. It should also be the focus of our political campaigning.

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