More evidence that trafficking is a myth

A major Irish investigation has failed to find proof of people-smuggling, puncturing the ‘new slavery’ scare.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

At the beginning of April, just days before the European Convention on Action against Human Trafficking came into force in Britain, academics, sex workers and activists from around the world took part in a five-day ‘Sex Workers’ Open University’ in east London.

On the first day of film screenings, workshops and discussions on issues related to the sex industry, trafficking was a recurring theme. Participants were keen to debunk the myths of global ‘people smuggling’ and forced prostitution. The head of the Danish Sex Workers’ Interests Organisation claimed that ‘very few who work in the sex industry have been trafficked’. Nick Mai, a senior research fellow in Migrations and Immigrations at London Metropolitan University, asserted that, although anti-trafficking legislation is rolled out in the name of protecting migrants and women, it ultimately amounts to ‘anti-migration legislation’. A representative from the British Collective of Prostitutes said anti-trafficking campaigners ‘use inflated figures and exploit public concern’ to push through legislation.

Indeed, even as EU member states join forces to combat human trafficking, evidence for its existence is disintegrating. A major police investigation into prostitution in Ireland has failed to find any evidence of organised trafficking there. ‘Despite recent claims about large-scale organised trafficking of women and even children to this country’, the Irish Sunday Independent reported last week, ‘the detectives found only two cases where it may have occurred, but they also had doubts after the women involved changed their stories’ (1). Irish police concluded that most of the young foreign women working within the sex industry in Ireland are doing so voluntarily. Perhaps they are motivated by the high pay – prostitutes in Ireland apparently earn between €500 and €600 per day, on average.

Embarrasingly, these police findings seem to contest research published just days earlier by Irish anti-trafficking campaigners. They claimed to have identified 102 women and girls as having been trafficked into Ireland for the sex industry over a 21-month period. Many of these women had indeed experienced unacceptable abuse and violence as part of their sometimes dangerous work. But the Irish campaigners used dubious methods to reach the conclusion that the foreign women and girls were ‘trafficking victims’ and were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’. They used a broad UN definition of trafficking, which completely discounts any notion of consent as ‘irrelevant’ since ‘the vast majority of people trafficked for prostitution see little or no viable alternative at the time’ (2).

It is not only in Ireland where claims around organised trafficking and modern-day slavery have turned out to be myths. In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, left- and right-wing politicians, Christians and feminists formed an unholy cross-border alliance in an attempt to stop 40,000 ‘sex slaves’ from being forced in to Germany to satiate the lust-filled male football fans. As it turned out, German police uncovered just five cases of ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’ during the World Cup – and one of the victims was a German (3).

At the Sex Workers’ Open University, Nick Mai pointed out that coercion and exploitation does exist within the sex industry: some women are indeed forced into it against their will, or certainly have very restricted choices. Yet the emotive term ‘trafficking’ has become a powerful tool for prostitution abolitionists to win wider public support for their efforts to clamp down on the sex industry as a whole, and to criminalise migrant workers. Anti-trafficking has replaced HIV/AIDS as the abolitionists’ trump card.

Mai pointed out that some migrants choose to work in the sex industry in order to avoid exploitation in other industries, where there is frequently low pay and long working hours. Yet migrants tend to become subjects of concern for campaigners only when they enter the sex industry, despite the fact that they can earn significantly more through that line of work than they would as domestic workers or seasonal agricultural workers for instance.

Anti-traffickers appear to believe that sex work in itself is a form of enslavement, and thus presume that foreigners who work in the sex industry in Britain and elsewhere in Europe are doing so against their will. It is telling that one anti-trafficking activist, writing in the Guardian, confused a statistic on the number of foreign nationals working in the British sex industry with the number of trafficking victims. She wrote: ‘Ten to 15 years ago, only 15 per cent of the women in the UK sex trade were trafficked.’ Later, a correction to the article said: ‘We meant 15 per cent were foreign nationals.’ (4)

The same article cited another, already disproved figure: that 80 per cent of women in prostitution in Britain are foreign nationals, most of whom have been trafficked. This estimate was provided by the Poppy Project, set up by the UK Home Office in 2003 to combat trafficking and sexual abuse of women arriving in to the UK. The figure is based on a 2002 survey by the Metropolitan Police’s Clubs and Vice Unit, which claimed to have discovered that in venues used for prostitution in central London, 70 to 80 per cent of the women were foreign (5). Similar figures later appeared in a Home Office consultation paper on prostitution.

Both of these studies acknowledged the difficulty of establishing exactly how many women are trafficked into prostitution. And yet, the Poppy Project deduced from its study of women working in the off-street sex industry in one part of London that the trends found there would be reproduced in the same way across the rest of Britain (6). This is a dubious presumption, to say the least. The Poppy Project and other anti-trafficking warriors tend to presume that foreign women working in the sex industry are, by definition, ‘victims of trafficking’; they refuse to see migrants or sex workers as people with agency. In their worldview, there is only room for victims and perpetrators, the abused and abusers.

Of course, women often enter the sex industry because of a lack of choice; you would be hard-pressed to find young girls who aspire to be prostitutes when they grow up. It would be silly, as many pointed out at the Open University, to romanticise sex work. Yet at the same time, many workers in different industries and sectors, especially poorly paid migrant workers, do not always feel that they have unlimited options available to them. Most people work out of necessity rather than personal choice.

The Irish police investigation suggests, yet again, that theories of mass, organised trafficking are mere speculations. Figures tend to be heavily inflated and are tied to political agendas rather than being grounded in reality. After all, how can a phenomenon for which there is no agreed definition, and which is routinely described as a ‘covert activity’ that happens in ‘the shadow economy’, be quantified in any real way? How do you define ‘consent’ and ‘choice’ in situations where people set out on journey across the world, unsure about exactly what they will find at the end of it? Why should we expect migrants to avoid hiring so-called ‘people smugglers’ to take them across borders or to provide them with false documentation when they are denied legal ways of travelling?

Across the globe, serious clamp-downs on liberty are occurring in the name of ‘combating trafficking’. This became painfully clear at the Open University, where activists from around the world spoke of the challenges posed by anti-trafficking legislation. One woman told of how migrant sex workers in Costa Rica are routinely rounded up and arrested in the name of rooting out trafficking. In Cambodia, anti-trafficking legislation, introduced under pressure from the US Department of State, has led to raids on brothels, with thousands being ‘forcibly rescued’ by NGOs. Women at the Empower Foundation, a collective of sex workers in Chiang Mai, Thailand, have reported similar ‘rescue missions’ by police and charity workers, ending with them being locked up, interrogated and deported without any compensation for them or their dependants (7).

Anti-traffickers tend to claim that it is only a small minority of privileged, Western sex workers who are against the criminalisation of sex work in general. Yet around the world, thousands of sex workers have organised to campaign for their working rights – from Argentina and Mexico to France and the UK; from Thailand and Cambodia to Malaysia and India. As the organisers of the Sex Workers’ Open University said: ‘The issue of trafficking has been used by some to try to criminalise all sex workers. We contest this simplistic association of all sex work with trafficking and abuse and we support the rights of all migrant workers, whether victims of trafficking or not, and condemn the detention and deportation of those workers.’

It is high time we ended the perverse war on ‘trafficking’ and started standing up for personal choice and for the right of people to move freely around the world.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) ‘”No sex slave rings here”, say gardai after probe’, Sunday Independent (Ireland), 19 April 2009

(2) Over 100 women trafficked for sex industry in Ireland, Irish Times, 17 April 2009

(3) See Exposed: the myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’, by Bruno Waterfield.

(4) The truth of trafficking, by Rahila Gupta, Guardian, 2 April 2009

(5) Open door, by Siobhain Butterworth, Guardian, 8 December 2008

(6) Open door, by Siobhain Butterworth, Guardian, 8 December 2008

(7) See Prostituting women’s solidarity, by Nathalie Rothschild.

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Topics Politics


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