A police report into sex trafficking in England and Wales will claim this week that there are only 2,600 women victims of the crime. The report – seen by The Independent on Sunday – has been criticised as "amateurish" by a senior police source.
Experts and politicians have questioned the accuracy of the research commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which will reignite the debate about the number of women and girls coerced into the sex industry. Of particular concern is the fact that no African victims of trafficking were found, despite a national shelter for trafficked women being at capacity with African victims.
The study, codenamed Project Acumen, relied on interviews with 254 women in London brothels and extrapolated the remaining national figure using newspaper reports and patchy existing data. It estimates that 17,000 foreign women work in the off-street sex industry but does not give data for the number of women who might be trafficked into street prostitution – or the number of British women that might be trafficked.
As the industry is illegal and women are often too frightened to speak out, it is notoriously difficult to get accurate figures. But experts say they believe the figure reached by ACPO's research is too low.
A senior police source called ACPO's methodology "farcical, amateurish even by police research standards". He described the 2,600 figure as "remarkably low" and added, "It is never hard to find victims. I'd expect to see more than 2,500 in London."
The report comes at a time when policing budgets are under threat. The Metropolitan Police's dedicated trafficking team was closed earlier this year, with trafficking added to the duties of a predominantly uniformed department whose experience was in closing down nuisance brothels. It is this department that conducted ACPO's research in London.
The timing has drawn some to conclude that there might be a political motivation for downplaying the scale of the crime.
"Generally the country doesn't want trafficking and we're at a stage where they're trying to reduce the cost of policing by 25 per cent, so you don't want to be finding new problems," a senior police source said. "Can the country afford to look after these victims?"
The former Conservative MP Anthony Steen, chairman of the Human Trafficking Centre, said he had spoken to senior police officers who know of 2,300 brothels in London alone. "They reckoned that 80 per cent of those working there were from abroad, and they estimated that 4,000 were trafficked. And that was just in London. My view is that the national figure is probably in excess of 10,000."
Organisations working with trafficked women are astonished that researchers did not find a single trafficked woman from Africa. "It is mildly surprising, to say the least, that they found no women from Africa because the accommodation units for trafficked women are entirely taken up with women from Africa," says Mr Steen.
Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), agrees. "What is quite troubling is the attempt to minimise the plight of victims of trafficking from Africa, many of whom are going through terrible experiences. We reject outright the findings of this research because it just does not reflect the reality."
An ACPO spokesperson said: "We don't want to comment ahead of the report launch."