Thursday, 12 November 2009

Sex trafficking: facts and fictions

By Kelly Prince, PhD candidate in Criminology, Research Institute for Law, Politics & Justice, Keele University

On 20th October, Nick Davies wrote an article for The Guardian which compared sex trafficking with the reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. An issue which is slowly developing a high profile in the UK, sex trafficking is just one form of human trafficking, a transnational crime which has attracted increased international attention in the last ten years. So, what can we learn from Davies’ article and the subsequent debate?

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations Palermo Protocol, article 3 as the:

exploitation of human beings – be it for sexual exploitation, other forms of forced labour, slavery, servitude, or for the removal of human organs. Trafficking takes place by criminal means through the threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of positions of power or abuse of positions of vulnerability. It relates to all stages of the trafficking process: recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. Trafficking is not just a transnational crime across international borders - the definition applies to internal domestic trafficking of human beings. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, 2004.

Davies refers only to sex trafficking and restricts his definition to ‘force, fraud or deception’, a considerable narrowing of the true definition. Furthermore, he uses the word ‘trafficking’ interchangeably with ‘sex trafficking’ without giving due recognition of the fact that there are many forms of trafficking, sexual exploitation being only one.

The article also mentions a Home Office research paper by Kelly and Regan called Stopping Traffic (2000), stating that the authors themselves admit that various conclusions drawn in the study, particularly data on numbers, are “speculative”. However, a thorough reading of the paper clearly illuminates the fact that, following their extensive research, the authors strongly believe that “[T]rafficking in women is clearly an issue in the UK”. An important fact in terms of numbers, highlighted by Kelly and Regan and omitted by Davies, is that people trafficking is extremely difficult to measure. The International Organisation of Migration was given substantial funding by the EU to do just that; they concluded that it isn’t currently possible with any degree of accuracy.

Following a Guardian investigation, Davies suggests that the police operation Pentameter 2, was anything but the success claimed by the police and Home Office alike. He cites as evidence that, of the 406 arrests made, 106 were released without charge, 47 were released after being cautioned for minor offences, 73 charged with immigration offences, 76 convicted of ‘non-trafficking offences’ involving drugs or the ‘driving or management of a brothel’. Ninety-six were arrested for ‘trafficking’, of whom 67 were charged. Twenty-two were finally prosecuted and 15 convicted.

At first glance, the figures look damning. However, it is well known that from the point of arrest, there are several points at which a case may ‘drop out’ of the criminal justice system and not always because the individual is innocent. The collection of sufficient evidence to get a case safely past these ‘drop out’ stages is not easy in relation to every day crimes such as burglary and theft, but when the crime is human trafficking of any kind, it becomes extremely difficult. Witnesses are invariably victims with all the associated complex trauma and mistrust of authority. A growing body of evidence from organisations such as the UN and the IOM suggest that trafficking is not only international but organised, in the same way arms and drugs trafficking is, and with the same structures in place which are designed to facilitate evasion. With criminal activity so enveloped in secrecy, it is perhaps more understandable that only 15 cases carried enough evidence to reach court and convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt.

This ‘drop out’ or attrition, is not uncommon. Take for example, the crime of rape. According to the British Crime Survey 2004, there is an annual incidence rate of 47,000 adult (over 16 years old), female victims. Only 15% of these report the attack to the police. 80% of those do not proceed beyond the police stage, with a further 6% being discontinued by the CPS and only 14% proceeding to trial. Only 1 in 8 reported rapes result in a conviction (Home Office Report 293 – A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases, 2005). I am confident that Nick Davies wouldn’t dream of suggesting that these sorry statistics indicate that the nature and rate of rape has been exaggerated.

Davies goes on to suggest that various evangelical and feminist organisations have hijacked the issue of sex trafficking to further their own agendas; the banning of all prostitution. And to some extent, he might be right. However, to say that increased attention given to sex trafficking is a direct result of a puritanical judgement of prostitution and a wish to persecute working women who are willingly trying to earn a crust in the sex industry is a fundamentally flawed and dangerous argument.

It is flawed because, by the very definition of sex trafficking, victims of this abhorrent crime are necessarily exploited and abused. The same cannot be said of prostitution, an occupation which some women enter and work in willingly. It is no surprise then that groups advocating for prostitutes, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, have become adversaries of the sex trafficking cause. But this is not useful and unnecessary as prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigns are not automatically at odds. Fundamentally, they are both concerned with the protection of vulnerable women.

It is a dangerous argument because one of the most important aspects of the anti-trafficking campaign is the need to make the public more aware of the phenomenon, particularly indications of its presence. Trafficked people have been found in Britain’s hotels, restaurants, take-aways, on farms and beaches, as well as private households and of course some have been found in the sex industry. Those who wish to address the problem of trafficking may come to rely on local people bringing their concerns to the attention of the authorities.

It is fair to say that Davies’ article ignited some attention grabbing debate which can be seen both in the media and on the ‘Comment is Free’ Guardian blog site. Furthermore, he also makes some good points about how data is used and abused by various people pursuant of their own agenda. However, there is some concern that inaccurate, insensitive and sensationalist newspaper articles may serve only to turn the public away from a problem which desperately needs their support.

No comments: