Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Yet another sex-trafficking report on the way

With the Bailey review having strutted its hour upon the stage, the market for reports into childhood sexualisation is probably saturated - for the time being at any rate. But not to worry - there's always sex-trafficking to get worked up about. A subject very like "sexualisation" in its ability to unite the outraged sentiments of Mail and Guardian alike.

A press release from the Centre for Social Justice - the Conservative think-tank established by Iain Duncan Smith and Tim Montgomerie - announces the setting up of a "major inquiry into modern slavery". The report's remit extends beyond the sex-trade - it will also look at domestic servitude and people-smuggling for the purpose of forced or illegal labour (that latter being, numerically, by far the larger phenomenon). But the statement doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

The CSJ claims that people trafficking is "the fastest growing international crime". No evidence is given to prove this assertion - though I've found this report in which FBI Agent Steven Merrill is quoted as saying that it is "widely regarded" as the world's fastest-growing crime. Other popular candidates for the "fastest-growing crime" accolade include identity theft, rape and child pornography. The problem, needless to say, is that no-one can agree on what "people smuggling" actually is, and what distinguishes it from illegal immigration.

To many law-enforcement authorities and governments, all assisted illegal immigration is "people-smuggling" - it is irrelevant if the people being smuggled are volunteers, as in most-cases they are. So the mass phenomenon of unauthorised border crossing becomes conflated with bonded labour, and the whole scarily described as "the world's fastest growing crime." There's a big difference, though, between tackling excessive immigration (assuming that tackling excessive immigration is your thing) and tackling modern-day slavery. I assume that the CSJ are aware of this. They certainly should be, although there's no indication that they are.

It's similarly unclear what constitues slavery. According to Demi Moore - a reliable authority, I suppose, since she is quoted on a UN website - there are 27 million slaves in the world today. Anti-slavery International likewise asserts that "millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves." Its list of modern slavery highlights the following abuses:

  • Bonded labour - Mainly in Asia
  • Forced labour - at least 12.3 million people worldwide
  • Early or forced marriage
  • Slavery by descent
  • Trafficking
  • "Worst forms of child labour" - affecting 126 million children

According to Anti-Slavery International, 77% of forced labour occurs in the Asia-Pacific region. The industrialised countries as a whole account for a mere 3%.

According to the CSJ, by contrast

Contrary to popular perception, slavery is as much a problem in the UK as abroad. In the year to March 2010, 706 victims of slavery were formally identified in this country but the true numbers are much higher. According to one estimate, at least 6,000 women and children have been trafficked into the UK and forced into prostitution.

The 6,000 figure might be true: it depends on the timescale. If the starting point it the beginning of time, or a hundred years ago, it may be too low. But as a current estimate, it is almost certainly too high. Unfortunately, the press release doesn't source this or any other statement, or explain what evidence there is for the claim that "the true numbers" of slaves in Britain are "much higher". True domestic slavery, for example, is likely to be quite rare in the UK, and many of its practitioners probably have diplomatic immunity. In any case, the suggestion that slavery is as much a problem in the UK as it is in some other countries has nothing whatever to do with evidence. It's just bonkers.

By appointing Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union to head the "sexualisation" review, the government was choosing someone whose likely emphasis was already well known. And he didn't disappoint. So who have the CSJ asked to front up their trafficking review? One Andrew Wallis, who is described as the director of "anti-trafficking and victim support charity Unseen UK". Someone, in other words, already in the campaign business - just as Bailey was - rather than a disinterested lawyer or academic who might just question the assumption that trafficking is a major problem. Personally, I'd like to see Laura Águstin on the panel. Fat chance.

And it turns out that describing Unseen UK as an anti-trafficking organisation is a bit misleading. It's an anti sex-trafficking organisation. To be more specific, an anti-female sex-trafficking. At the very least, the appointment suggests that the inquiry risks giving overdue weight to the minority of trafficking and forced labour that has a sexual dimension. According to Unseen UK's website:

unseen(uk) is a charity founded to support female survivors of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. unseen(uk), as well as achieving our other aims, wants to allow women who have been subjected to trafficking, safety, hope and choice as they begin the journey of rebuilding their lives. The driving force behind the work of unseen(uk) is the desire to see women who have been freed from the sex-trafficking industry here in the UK, regaining their dignity and self-worth.

Laudable aims, no doubt. But why are their services only open to women? It's also striking that the website quotes numerous trafficking statistics that are not - but might easily be taken to be - sex-trafficking statistics.

For example, there's a claim that "Between 500,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked into the EU every year". This may be so, if the definition of "trafficking" includes (as it does) bringing people into the EU for the purpose of illegal employment. The vast majority of such people are not coerced, do not end up in conditions of servitude and do not form part of the sex industry. They are illegal immigrants. The group includes those who will become cheap labour, working at rates far below the national minimum wage of whichever country they enter. Some might be considered "slaves"; fewer will be "sex slaves". Of those trafficked into the sex industry, many will be volunteers.

Both myth and reality are in evidence in a story from Glasgow's Evening Times, coincidentally appearing today. Under the heading "Cops raid four city brothels", the first, attention-grabbing line reads "a 16-year-old girl has been rescued from sex traffickers in Glasgow". There's no information supplied about the girl in question, save her nationality (Romanian) and that she had been staying in flat in Govanhill. We don't know if she was alone in the flat, or if anyone else was involved or has been arrested in connection with the trafficking offence.

Instead, the report concentrates on three other raids, which the Evening Times was invited to witness. These were connected with what is described as "a major intelligence-gathering exercise on the scale of Thai prostitution rings in Glasgow." One woman was found in each flat (which, legally, does not make them brothels, although that is how they were inevitably described). The suspected pimp was arrested at another address. Interestingly, the women do not seem to have told the police what they wanted to hear. Initially detained "as suspected victims of trafficking", the trio were now being charged with prostitution offences and will shortly appear in court.

The report states that Thai women in the British sex industry "typically feel they can’t leave their brothels because of a bond of debt – or fear of reprisals against family members back home." But it also admits that some trafficked women "know that they are going abroad to work as prostitutes." Moreover:

Trafficked women rarely live up to the media image as unwashed waifs chained to radiators when they are not working or smuggled in to the country in the back of container trucks.
Nor do they necessarily conform to the stereotype of a street prostitute in high heels and short skirt.
They may dress like any other woman of their age and be able to move freely in and out of their flats.
That is one of the messages of a major public information campaign launched by [Strathclyde Police's] anti-trafficking unit.

So what is the message? If you see a Thai woman, she's probably a sex-slave? Even if she doesn't look like one, behave like one and denies it if asked.