Tuesday, March 4, 2003

p. 10

Time to put the brakes on sex trade

MARGO MacDONALD and Lothian and Borders Police have warned of East European-organised crime gangs bringing women to work in the sex industry in Edinburgh.

And with police estimating that as many as 10,000 women are working in the sex industry in Britain without appropriate immigration papers, tackling trafficking is long overdue.

Women leave their home towns for many different reasons — and one of the consequences of the changes in the Eastern European countries, in particular, has been to open doors to "a better life" in the West.

In search of job opportunities, education and to help support a family back home, young women are ready to travel, but seldom with the knowledge and resources that would provide some protection from the dangers ahead.

Trafficking is a chain of events, taking us though countries of origin, transit and countries of destination. All involved must be identified . The women in this chain are the victims, and policies and legislation have to be devised to reflect that understanding.

By the time a woman arrives in Britain and is then found working in the sex industry in any of Britain's major cities, she will already have been the victim of sexual exploitation and abuse.

There is a difference between "people smuggling" (also a crime, of course) and trafficking. The arrangement between the "smuggler" and the person travelling to this country ends when the border is crossed.

With trafficking for sexual exploitation, the illegal entry into the country is only one stage in a five or six-stage process that involves sexual enslavement of the victim on a long-term basis. The abusive relationship between the exploiter and the victim continues once the victim is in the country.

Having paid a small sum at the beginning of their journey and given over their papers, women reach the UK to find that the job they were promised does not exist, and that they are expected to repay the travel debts and to pay for accommodation and other demands.

Often the women will be sold on as they travel through other countries, ending up here with an impossibly large debt and tied in to other threats and abuse. Often those involved in the trafficking network will know the women's family back at home and threaten to harm them, or to tell the family the truth about the work the woman is now doing. Women will continue working, in fear of the consequences for their family.

Legislation in the UK is to be tightened to increase the penalties for the criminal offence of trafficking.

In Scotland, on February 20, the Scottish Parliament passed the Criminal Justice Bill which contains a maximum 14-year sentence for those involved in trafficking of women for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

The Scottish Executive brought forward an amendment to this effect last November, which was given wholehearted support by MSPs of all political parties.

A motion, condemning trafficking as the "modern-day slave trade", lodged by Pauline McNeill, MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, also attracted cross-party support.

This places Scotland ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom to date, although the Government has signalled its commitments to amend or introduce similar legislation.

THE Government has also signed up to the European Brussels Declaration on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings.

This recognises the contribution that all governments will have to make, working across borders, to break the circle of trafficking. Governments and non-governmental organisations are working together on this.

UNIFEM, (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) has been active both in raising awareness of trafficking and in funding practical support. A small project currently running in Latvia is a good illustration of the contribution that can be made.

At the PPAT — Latvia (Project for the Prevention of Adolescent Trafficking), young people have the opportunity to go to youth centres around Latvia, linked to schools, communities and homelessness projects.

At these youth centres girls can learn about human trafficking, and how to protect themselves if going abroad to work. Job details can be checked, contact phone numbers given, and the centres also keep copies of the girls' passport and work details to hand to police if the girl goes missing. Such projects are invaluable.

In London, the Metropolitan Police has a separate vice unit which has identified distinct patterns.

Speaking in Edinburgh last May, Ed Bird, the vice unit's operations sergeant, said that the unit now believed that as many as 75 per cent of the women working in the sex industry in central London were not UK nationals.

In general, trafficked women are not working as street prostitutes, but in saunas and other outlets. The average age five years ago was 20-25; now an increasing number of mid-teenage victims are being encountered. These patterns will be replicated across the country.

Last December, Strathclyde Police and the immigration authorities carried out a number of raids on saunas in Glasgow. This resulted in ten women being detained for questioning, nine of whom had entered the country illegally. They came from countries including Moldova, Romania, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Thailand and Poland.

While the police confirm that no evidence of trafficking had been uncovered, there are questions to be asked about the circumstances that led to these women working in Glasgow saunas.

If we recognise that women are the victims in the trafficking chain, then all possible support must be given to the women until such time as further information can be gathered and the safety of the woman ensured.

If the women do not have their own legal papers, are in debt, living in fear for themselves and their families, able to speak and understand only a little English , and are detained by the police and immigration services, then maybe it is no surprise that those responsible for bringing the women here go unpunished.

The Brussels Declaration also argued for sensitive support from all services involved, and some countries are establishing "safe houses", counselling, and a "breathing space" — similar to the refuge provision for women fleeing domestic violence, with which we are all familiar.

Let's learn from the work done to tackle domestic abuse. Violence that takes place behind closed doors has been challenged — the violence and abuse experienced by women who have been trafficked must also be challenged.

WE can work together across borders to tackle this — educating women and girls in their home countries, tackling poverty and providing opportunities, and at this end, developing services that provide safety and support .

The Scottish Executive and the parliament are quite right to be taking a lead on this, and the more we talk about it, the easier it will be for women to come forward in extremely difficult circumstances, knowing that they will get help and that those really responsible will be pursued. Ann Henderson is convener of the Edinburgh branch of the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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