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How latest UK trafficking statistics don’t quite add up

July 3rd, 2008

Dr Petra

News out today has drawn attention to reported high levels of women and children trafficked into prostitution in the UK.

Trafficking is always an emotive issue, as to question any aspect of it means you are automatically branded as someone who denies any abuse within the sex industry, or who does not care about anyone harmed within prostitution. Tragic stories from ex-sex workers, along with celebrity endorsement of well publicised anti-trafficking campaigns can often hide the fact that the data supporting the prevalence of trafficking is not always clear, and the agendas driving the anti trafficking campaigns may not always be agreed upon as beneficial to sex workers.

Unfortunately it is rare that the media ever questions stories about trafficking. Why would the press do so? It allows for salacious reporting, public revulsion, blaming of foreigners and shady gangland activity. No point in questioning anything that gives you such dramatic story angles.

Which is why it’s depressing but not surprising that with today’s excited headlines about thousands of trafficked children and women, no journalist appeared to ask questions that might have shown a different story.

It isn’t difficult; all you need to do is look at the data presented in the story and ask yourself if it makes any sense.

Media reports state between 6000-18000 trafficked girls and women are forced to work as prostitutes in the UK. Operation Pentameter Two – a six month nationwide police campaign against trafficking gangs resulted in 528 arrests of suspected traffickers and 167 victims of trafficking identified (154 women and 13 children – some as young as 13). Data suggests 822 premises were visited during the operationwhich led to 24 convictions.

Now it’s not clear whether it’s 6000, 18000 or an average of the two. It is not clear whether this is a six month figure (meaning that annually 12000-36000 women and girls are trafficked), or whether it spans some other time period. We have no idea whether it means there are anywhere between 6000-18000 victims of trafficking in the UK at any one time, or whether this is a figure that has increased or decreased.

It’s also confusing because at the close of 2007 politicians claimed there were 25000 sex slaves in the UK. So does this mean there has been a reduction of (a minimum of 7000) victims of trafficking?

The data is also sketchy around the total number of sex workers identified within this operation. Did all 167 victims identified come from the 822 brothels and homes visited or were there some homes/brothels where there was more than one victim, or did victims work in more than one location? Who else was working in the other 822 premises? What were their stories/experiences – were they charged or questioned?

How does the headline of 6000 to 18000 women and children trafficked into the UK for the sex trade translate into only 167 victims identified? It either means there are fewer women and children trafficked, or that around 5833 to 17833 victims remain unaccounted for.

The records indicated that 528 suspected traffickers were identified and 167 victims. Which means there is a huge disparity between victims and traffickers – roughly three traffickers per victim. This figure surely does no justice to those women and children, who are genuine victims as it must make us wonder if trafficking is such a lucrative trade with so many active traffickers, based on this data why aren’t there more victims? Did the operation simply not uncover them?

Of the traffickers arrested it seems only 4% were convicted – which means either there weren’t that many people involved in trafficking as first seems, or the prosecution of this operation was way off beam.

Perhaps the answer is simple. In any legal case there will always be more arrests made than prosecutions. Sometimes this is because people are innocent and will be let go, sometimes it’s because there’s not enough evidence to convict them. We have no idea with this data whether the low conviction rate is down to most people arrested being innocent, or a lack of evidence to prosecute all 528 suspects. It would also be helpful to have some comparison with an average legal case, since it’s not obvious whether the 24 convictions following 528 arrests equals a better than average prosecution rate or not.

Most of the headlines have focused on two key pieces of data. That 6000-18000 women and children are working in UK brothels, and that many are as young as 13 years old. This gives the impression that many of the victims of trafficking are children, whereas this data indicates that it’s around 8% of victims identified who were children. Now that’s clearly 8% too many children being abused, but press coverage has suggested that child trafficking is the norm, not the exception.

We are told that 24 of the 528 traffickers were charged, but we are told nothing about the fate of the women and children concerned in this case, apart from them being ‘freed’. But set free how? 85% of the women and children identified within this case were from outside the UK. So were they allowed to remain in the UK? Were they given leave to remain along with psychological support and access to healthcare services? Were they imprisoned here before being repatriated? Or were they deported?

What happened to the 167 women and children? Are they okay? Why did nobody check?

Critics of the current focus on trafficking argue that it is really a means of immigration control. Although the focus appears to be on the wellbeing of victims, their fate may well be being deported or imprisoned.

There are also concerns this approach is part of the current government’s problematic approach to prostitution, which is often to accept misleading or unintelligible data while ignoring the evidence base on this area and favouring passionate rhetorical campaigns that allows them to push for legal changes around sex laws that may end up harming, not helping, prostitutes.

So what was the story here? Was it really that thousands of women and children are being abused? Looking at the data it seems that while it’s suspected many women are trafficked, the numbers identified are very small in reality. Suspected traffickers outweigh suspected victims, and less than 5% of arrested traffickers are convicted. Nobody has been told what happened to the women and children identified through Operation Pentameter Two.

The data simply doesn’t match the headlines. It’s all very well the media making out they are concerned about victims of trafficking, but you can tell nobody really cares about the wellbeing of prostitutes because nobody asked questions about this data. If they had done they may have realised the scourge of trafficking we’re constantly being warned against is not as dramatic as we may think – but tragically there are still missing victims here.

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