The pull factor

Rahila Gupta
19 June 2008

Of all the hapless migrants caught up in the UK's increasingly dark and draconian immigration legislation, probably women trafficked into the sex trade are the only group to see a small patch of blue sky. In March 2007, on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, the government signed up to the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT) which brings them a measure of respite, protection and redress.

This article forms part of MigrantVoice on refuge, a special project celebrating UK Refugee Week 2008.Have your say on our multiauthored blog, bringing unheard voices to the forefront of the debate. Also in openDemocracy:

Liza Schuster, "Europe's shameful directive"

Zrinka Bralo, "Asylum and health: insult and injury"

Philippe Legrain, "Open Britain"

Irshad Manji, "For a future bigger than our past"

Mamphela Ramphele, "The rainbow nation's lesson"

Hsiao-Hung Pai, "Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow"

Brian K Murphy, "Open borders, global future".

The convention frames women as victims of a crime rather than as criminals breaking the immigration laws. Hopefully, we will no longer see repeat scenarios of police raiding a brothel for trafficked women, in the company of immigration officers who seize upon any woman whose papers are not in order and throw her into a detention centre: women freed from the pimp's prison only to end up in the state's prison. Many victims were deported without any assessment of what risk they might return to and without any prospects of their traffickers being held to account. This was especially true of those women who refused to assist with police investigations out of fear of retribution by branches of the same criminal networks which had brought them into Britain, and which awaited them in their country of origin.

The Convention, which the government is expected to ratify shortly, allows for a reflection period of 30 days during which time authorities are not allowed to deport anybody. Assistance to women is no longer contingent on them co-operating with police action against their traffickers. However, those who wish to pursue compensation claims against their traffickers will be granted renewable residence permits, as they need to stay in the country where the legal proceedings are being instituted. Campaigners are lobbying for residence permits to be issued for six months at a time in accordance with the successful Italian model, regardless of whether victims of trafficking choose to testify against their trafficker. This has resulted in more survivors being willing to testify and a higher degree of success in prosecuting traffickers. Some pressure groups are now calling on the government to agree to a 90 day reflection period at the end of which women can decide whether they wish to claim asylum.

Breaking the hold

Many women have said that a British passport breaks the grip that the traffickers have over them. It also eliminates the danger of being re-trafficked, the ‘revolving door phenomenon' which is the fate that befalls many women who are deported. The government had dithered over signing up to the Convention in case its very modest measures for the protection of victims became ‘pull' factors. This made no sense at all. If coercion and/or deception are accepted as key elements in trafficking, then by definition, there are no ‘pull' factors. If anything, it is more likely to make traffickers ‘downsize' their trade if women are supported to testify against them.

Government anxiety that the Convention will open the floodgates has led to attempts to reduce the number of women to whom the term 'trafficked' can be applied. The gateway to protection will hinge upon the meaning of deception. While the Action Plan on Trafficking produced by the UK Human Trafficking Centre acknowledges that deception plays a key role, certain public pronouncements by the police have created anxiety that government will attempt to narrow that gateway as far as possible. Superintendent Chris Bradford, the Head of the Vice and Clubs Unit of the Metropolitan Police said in a radio interview, 'They are coming to the UK to be lap dancers, table dancers. That's only one step away from actually getting involved in prostitution'. So that's alright then, they weren't really deceived.

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and the Times Higher Education Supplement among other papers and magazines. Her latest book, Enslaved was published by Portobello Books in July 2007.

In fact, trafficking into forced prostitution or for that matter forced labour in catering, caring or agriculture should not be seen through the prism of immigration alone, because trafficking happens within borders as well as across borders. Uneven development is the nature of the capitalist beast, creating pockets of extreme poverty even in the wealthiest nations which can push people into accepting even suspicious sounding job offers.

But women are regularly trafficked from the poorer to the richer parts of Europe. When Lithuania joined Europe in 2004, the trafficking of women increased. About 2,000 women and girls were reported to have been brought from Lithuania in 2005. It became easier and cheaper to traffick them because they could come here with legal documentation. "Immigration is a useful tool for traffickers but it's not the only tool" says Denise Marshall, Chief Executive of Eaves Housing and the POPPY project for trafficked women. Traffickers use sexual violence and the stigma of prostitution to keep women under their thumb by threatening to tell their families about what they do. The women's lack of knowledge of available help and language skills are also part of their armoury.

Supply and demand

While poverty fuels supply, a thriving sex industry in the UK fuels demand. Apparently one in ten men now pays for sex, which represents a doubling of the figures since the 1990s. And that is the real pull factor, not some government anxiety about liberalised immigration controls. Trade is conducted so openly that slave auctions are reportedly taking place in coffee shops at Heathrow and Gatwick where brothel keepers are bidding for women. The government is content to tackle demand by producing publicity material urging men who use prostitutes to be aware of the risk that the women may be trafficked. As if that is likely to stop them. On the contrary, on websites like punternet where men exchange stories of their sexual experiences with prostitutes, the more willing a woman is to please, the more popular she is and it is usually those at the bottom of the pile, i.e. trafficked women, who will agree to sex without condoms, and other dangerous practices.

Compare this flaccid response to the government's more robust approach to the buyers of services provided by illegal labour in areas such as catering, agriculture and caring. Under new legislation, the government will fine employers and even jail them for not checking on the immigration status of their workers. If the government believes that trafficking of forced labour can be curtailed by harsh treatment of employers, why is the same argument not extended to punters buying sex?

It appears to have worked in Sweden where the purchase of sexual services was criminalised in 1999, which led to a substantial shrinkage in their sex industry and a drop in numbers of women trafficked there. The success of the Swedish example has prompted Norway to go in the same direction. There is a small but vociferous lobby of prostitutes and their supporters in Britain who argue against criminalisation of punters on the basis that women will become more vulnerable. It is not quite clear why this should be so. It appears to be put forward by a class of prostitutes, an elite, which is not at the mercy of pimps or traffickers and is in control of their working lives. They have used the discourse of trade union rights to get prostitution or ‘sex work', their preferred euphemism, accepted as a form of legitimate employment.

Some sections of the left have gone along with this misguided attempt to dignify prostitution, as if violent punters are an occupational hazard that can be minimised via the traditional trade union route of health and safety laws. No amount of health and safety can make this profession safe for women. The vast majority of prostitutes have fallen into this lifestyle through addiction to drugs, violent or manipulative partners, and/or as a way out of poverty. They are looking for exit routes, and when the government provides adequate resources, as it did in Ipswich after the serial murders in 2006, not one of the surviving prostitutes opted to work the streets.

In Britain, feminists have long argued that prostitution is part of a continuum which reduces all women to sexual objects. It appears that the feminist position against prostitution is gaining ground. Senior women in government are in favour of criminalising the buying of sex. The trafficking of women cannot be dealt with in piecemeal fashion. It is part and parcel of the sex industry. If the government can emasculate it, so to speak, we will hopefully see a dramatic reduction in the number of women trafficked into sexual slavery.

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