Shine A Light

Victims behind bars – foreign national women are being trafficked into offending in the UK

Trafficked as children, repeatedly raped, yet these women are just criminals to the UK justice system.

Jenny Earle
30 January 2013

“I started fetching water door to door for people in the community [in Nigeria]. There was a couple I normally fetch water for. I was asked by the couple would I like live in England with them as they normally help people like me that have nobody to further their education and have a brighter future. Not knowing that they are trafficking people to the UK for prostitution. We are five girls that they brought here…  After I got away it was hard to find work. A lady she let me work and then she threw me out. She said I would commit a crime. Then I stayed with the Imam at the mosque - I cleaned the mosque and I cleaned the toilets. Then I had to go to the other mosque. Many times I was sleeping on the streets and picking up any work I could.  At arrest my heart was beating very fast and I told them I was very, very cold. I could not eat - I kept in my head ‘if you tell - pool of blood’. I think the police will harm me and I am very scared of the police.”

This is the account given by a young woman orphaned in Nigeria at the age of 13, who was sex-trafficked into Britain and threatened by her sex trafficker that “she would end in a pool of blood” if she told anyone or tried to escape.

When she did later escape and was charged with using a false ID, her barrister knew she was trafficked, but said that in court, “I did not mention it as I did not want to get on the wrong side of the judge.”

This woman’s traumatic experience is one of many harrowing accounts reported in new research highlighting the failures in the criminal justice system that result in the incarceration of women who are trafficked, coerced and abused into offending.  The research is being considered at a UK House of Lords roundtable today (30 January 2013), organised by the Prison Reform Trust in the context of its new 3 year programme to reduce women’s imprisonment.

Foreign national women account for 1 in 7 of the total female prison population in England and Wales, and as the new research confirms, many of them should not be there. The report by Dr Liz Hales and Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe of the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology provides vital information about women who enter the UK from overseas to seek work or asylum, voluntarily or under coercion, and who end up in custody. It reveals that very few of the foreign national women in custody who have been trafficked into offending are getting the help and support to which they are entitled as victims of crime.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, examines the case management of migrant women in the criminal justice and immigration systems. The authors found violence, intimidation and rape were common experiences, but evidence of women’s suffering was overlooked and they did not receive the protection due to them as victims of human trafficking under international law.

From initial interviews with 103 women in prisons and immigration removal centres, the offences of 58 women were linked with their victim status and data was gathered on their progress through the criminal justice and immigration system. Within this group, 43 women were identified by the researchers as victims of human trafficking, and five more who had entered the country independently had worked under slavery like conditions. Of these:

  • Nearly half (20) were forced to work in prostitution and fifteen in cannabis production. Eight worked in domestic servitude, two were acting as drug mules and eight were involved in street robberies and the sale of fake goods. Five had been trafficked as children; one of whom had been re-trafficked to the UK after being deported to Africa from the first destination country.

The women described to the researchers their experiences at the hands of their traffickers and abusers before ending up in the criminal justice system. Some had been persecuted in their countries of origin. A common theme was women’s confusion and sense of powerless after arrest. Terrified women who have been repeatedly raped and abused could find no one at police stations, courts or jails that they could trust or turn to for help. One victim of trafficking said: “At the early stages at court the only thing I understood was the next hearing date and I just felt I was in their hands – like being in the hands of the people who brought me here.”

The failure of the criminal justice and immigration agencies to ensure adequate interpreter support or access to documents in a language the women could understand was another common experience. Many women were very worried about their children from whom they had been abruptly separated on arrest.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive protection and support, was introduced to meet the UK’s obligations under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. But only one quarter (11) of the 43 women identified by researchers as having been trafficked were processed through the framework, and for two of these women it happened after their sentence was completed. Even where referrals resulted in a positive decision and non-prosecution, the victims spent on average four months in custody. For the majority there was no recognition of their victim status and no access to support or temporary protection from deportation other than applying for asylum.

All of the women interviewed indicated that they had been victims of physical and/or emotional abuse. Twenty-four women disclosed that they had experienced multiple rapes and for an additional two this had been an ongoing threat. Some women asked prison doctors for help with severe abdominal pains, heavy bleeding and discharge following extensive rape and sexual abuse.

Professor Gelsthorpe said: “The message from this research is clear: the powerlessness of these women in the hands of their traffickers is terrifyingly replicated within the criminal justice system. There should be renewed efforts to recognise that ‘offenders’ can also be ‘victims’, and to ensure that appropriate credence is given to women’s accounts of their own experience.”  

The Prison Reform Trust is urging the UK Government to ensure that its forthcoming national strategy on women’s justice includes a strategy on foreign national women in prison, to include better monitoring and enforcement of the UK’s obligations under international law, including the EU Convention on Trafficking and the UN Bangkok Rules on the treatment of women prisoners.

The Prison Reform Trust urges the UK Government to ensure that its forthcoming national strategy on women’s justice includes a strategy on foreign national women in prison. This must involve better monitoring and enforcement of the UK’s obligations under international law, including the EU Convention on Trafficking and the UN Bangkok Rules on the treatment of women prisoners. Women who have been trafficked or coerced into offending should not be punished but given the help they need. 


The Criminalisation of Migrant Women, by Liz Hales and Loraine Gelsthorpe, is published by the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

No Way Out – foreign national women in prison in England and Wales is a Prison Reform Trust and Hibiscus briefing, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust. 

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