Human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing crime. A US
government report published in 2000 estimated that about 800,000
women and children are trafficked worldwide each year. And this
figure only includes cross-border trafficking. Thousands more are
trafficked within one country.
Hundreds of women are trafficked to the UK each year, either as a
final destination or on their way through to another country.
Typically they come from eastern Europe, south east Asia and west
Africa. They are either sexually exploited or put into domestic
slavery, although the two often overlap.
The UK government has signed the UN Convention on Transnational
Organised Crime and the three attached protocols – one of which
refers specifically to the trafficking of women and children – but
only recently has it shown willingness to introduce legislation to
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 introduced an
offence of trafficking for prostitution, carrying a maximum prison
sentence of 14 years. More recently, the Sexual Offences Bill now
going through parliament includes a broader offence of trafficking
for sexual exploitation with the same penalty.
Undoubtedly this is a step in the right direction, but it is not
ambitious enough, says Mike Kaye, communications co-ordinator at
Anti-Slavery International. “There are big profits to be made and
that’s equally true for labour exploitation. If that loophole isn’t
closed then traffickers will move into the area where they can make
equal amounts of money without the risk of a prison
Women fall into the hands of traffickers through various means.
Some are abducted, others think they are going to work as, say, a
waitress or cleaner. Some do know they will work as prostitutes,
but are then faced with unexpected conditions, such as being forced
to have unsafe sex.
Apart from those who are abducted, all trafficked women are seeking
to improve their and their families’ lives, and perhaps escape
turmoil in their country. Traffickers are quick to take advantage
of their willingness to risk everything. By the time they realise
they have been tricked it is too late – and escape is difficult.
Traffickers retain control by using a variety of coercive
mechanisms, says Kaye. Violence and threats are not just directed
at the women, but at their families back home. False documents are
often used to bring the women into the country; if not, their
passports are confiscated once they are here, or their visas are
allowed to expire.
“That generally ensures that they won’t escape because they think
if they go to the authorities they will be arrested or deported,”
says Kaye. “They may also distrust authorities because corrupt
immigration officers in their country of origin may have been
involved in trafficking them.”
Freedom of movement is negligible and they are often locked up. And
after borrowing money from families and friends, or the traffickers
themselves for the journey here, they run into debt.
“They have no money, so if they were to escape where would they go?
Many don’t speak English. If you combine that with everything else
a trafficker does to control them it makes escape seem a hopeless
prospect,” says Kaye.
This means that trafficked women most often come to the
authorities’ attention during police raids on brothels. For those
who do escape the traffickers’ clutches, Eaves Housing for Women is
the only service specifically for trafficked women. The London
charity provides supported housing to women. It started working
with trafficked women in 2001.
It has set up the Poppy project, a research and development
initiative focusing on prostitution and trafficking of women and
children into the UK. In March 2003 Eaves agreed to pilot a
six-month Victims of Trafficking project for the Home Office, now
extended to December, whereby it would provide housing and support
funded by the government for up to 25 trafficked women at any one
time. There is a narrow definition of whom they can help: women
must have been brought to the UK, forcibly sexually exploited and
working as a prostitute. They also have to be willing to co-operate
with the authorities.
But the referral rate has been lower than expected. Of 43 referrals
only 13 women fitted the criteria. Mandy Berriman, Poppy project
manager, fears that information about its work is not reaching the
right people and that its links with the authorities act as a
Referrals usually come from police, agencies working with
immigration and asylum issues, and sexual health agencies. Berriman
cites the case of one woman who was referred by a sexual health
worker. The plan was to pick her up from hospital after an abortion
but the trafficker turned up earlier than expected and the woman
had to leave with him. At a follow-up appointment at the sexual
health clinic the woman was told she could leave with an Eaves
worker and a police escort. She agreed and left through the back
door, leaving the trafficker in reception.
The pilot project has two stages: level one support provides safe
accommodation for up to four weeks, a food and subsistence
allowance and support services. To receive level two support they
must co-operate with the authorities. The women need to be able to
give information that the police feel will help a prosecution or
contribute to intelligence information on a trafficking
“The main stumbling block is for the women to consider whether they
want to talk to the authorities,” says Berriman. If they agree,
they are accommodated for anything up to 12 weeks, longer if work
with the police is ongoing or they are involved in a trial.
During this time, one of the main issues is to look at whether it
is safe for the women to return home or whether they want to stay
here. Most women want to stay, which was not anticipated
originally, says Berriman. “We thought that because many are
brought here by force and their experience won’t have been
positive, more would want to return home. But they feel unsafe
about doing so because they fear they will be trafficked
This is not a groundless fear as the charity has dealt with women
who have been trafficked more than once after they have been
deported or chosen to return home. If the women do not want to
co-operate with the authorities then alternatives have to be
explored, such as whether they can be offered a voluntary assisted
return home. Work outside the project’s remit needs to be done
around making it safe for this to happen, says Berriman. “While
some countries co-operate with the police here in providing
protection, others are corrupt. And a minority of families sold the
women into trafficking in the first place.”
The immigration service can grant temporary admission to women in
the project as long as they are helping the police, but many have
been forced to make bogus claims by the trafficker which complicate
matters, she adds.
There are few organisations that will support these women in the
short term. The National Asylum Support Service (Nass) provides for
some, but they are then placed in inappropriate hostels, says
Consequently, few women leave the project because it is difficult
for them to move on. “We are seeking Nass funding for some and we
are also discussing with Nass whether it will approve us as a
specialist accommodation provider.”
Currently, there are nine women accommodated by the project and one
receiving outreach support, as well as four who came to Eaves
before the launch of the pilot and are still supported.
Human trafficking was first uncovered in the UK in the 1990s.
Refugee Arrivals Project was one of the agencies to identify the
problem. Elizabeth Little, executive director of the charity which
is based near Heathrow airport, says: “We accommodate newly arrived
asylum seekers and we noticed that women were disappearing in
mysterious circumstances. Over 18 months in 1998-9 about 180 women
The problem is that there are no resources being put into
detection, says Little. “The government takes an enforcement line,
that we should stop the women getting here and, if they do, then
chuck them out. But we say an intelligence route is better. Once
women feel safe they are more likely to divulge valuable
information. But they are seen as a criminal, not a victim. They
aren’t assured of any future in this country and are afraid they
will be sent back to where they were trafficked from. There is no
incentive to give information.”
Little and Kaye’s wish for a three-month reflection period for
trafficked women to consider their position before making a
decision on whether to give information, as some countries have, is
reflected in last week’s report from the London assembly’s Green
Party group (news, page 9, 4 September). It also advocates social
workers, police and immigration officers being taught about the
intricacies of human trafficking.
If this government is serious about tackling trafficking,
protection and support of the trafficked person must be put first,
says Kaye. “Initially trafficked people are unlikely to reveal
anything. Police should be able to refer them to an agency that can
provide them with services and tell them their options. Then they
are more likely to co-operate. If they choose not to give
information to the authorities, they may have given some
information to the supporting agency.”
So what’s the long-term solution? Look at our restrictive migration
policies, says Kaye. “We should recognise that we depend on migrant
workers to fill skilled and unskilled jobs and we should offer them
regular routes of migration. That way you diminish the
opportunities for traffickers.”
Locked away and forced into sex
Manesha (not her real name) was born in Sierra Leone in 1984.
Her mother disappeared when she was about six. She was helped to
flee the civil war to live in The Gambia by a family friend.
When she was 17 she returned to Sierra Leone to find her
extended family. After arriving with no money and nowhere to stay
she was gang-raped and spent the night on the street. The next
day a man stopped to talk to her and she asked him for food. He was
sympathetic and said he had a friend who could help her get
well-paid domestic work in England. She took up his offer and
travelled to the UK with another man who had arranged the
Manesha arrived in England in January 2002 and was taken to his
house. His wife told her she would be working as a masseuse and she
was told that if she reported the couple to the police she would be
deported as she had no papers. She was locked in the house and
forced to have sex with up to seven men each day.
Five months later, police searched the house and found Manesha
but she was arrested for having no passport and sent to a detention
centre. The couple visited her and said if she told the truth she
would be sent back to Africa where their friends would kill
She was given contact details for Eaves Housing at the centre.
When she was released in July 2002 she went to live in an Eaves
property. Manesha has given information to the police but she does
not know what happened to the couple. She wants to remain in the UK
as she believes she would not be safe in Africa. Her asylum case is
yet to be resolved.