Joan Smith: Let's call sex-trafficking by its real name – slavery

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There is no shortage of convicted sex-traffickers in English prisons. Two defendants werejailed for three years and two-and-a-half years respectively last week after running brothels in Surbiton for several years; Michael Dalton and Nikki Chen forced young women to have sex with around 12 men each day to pay off "debts" they ran up when they were trafficked to the UK on false passports.

In another recent case, two Hungarians were jailed for eight years in March after forcing young women to work in brothels in an affluent area of north London; Andrea Novak and Joszef Budai also forced one victim to pose for photographs on a pornographic website.

One of the most notorious traffickers to end up in an English jail was an Albanian, Luan Plakici, imprisonedfor 10 years in 2003. At the time of his trial at Wood Green, north London, detectives said it was the biggest case of human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution ever seen in this country. Plakici admitted bringing between 50 and 60 young women into the UK illegally to work in brothels in London, Reading, Luton and Bedford.

Against this background, it is clear that sex-trafficking is going on in the UK, even if the number of convictions is an unreliable guide to the extent of the problem. Amnesty International recently pointed out that no one has ever been convicted of sex-trafficking in Scotland, despite the fact that dozens of suspects have been arrested; often they are convicted of other offences relating to immigration or prostitution. Internal trafficking of teenage girls is a growing problem, as our report today suggests, and Project Acumen acknowledges the existence of "closed markets" – foreign women brought to the UK to serve a small group – which are very difficult to crack.

Yet some academics and campaigners don't believe that sex-trafficking is a significant UK problem. They have the ear of some senior police officers and much of the media. When Dr Nick Mai published research on migrants in the UK sex industry, he said he had found very few who were coerced. He even listed the advantages of sex work, including "meeting interesting people, travelling and experiencing new and challenging situations".

Mai was one of the academics quoted in last autumn's front-page story in The Guardian, which claimed that "an unlikely union of evangelical Christians with feminist campaigners" had whipped up a "moral panic". The article also claimed to have detected "a tide of misinformation" about sex-trafficking comparable to the last government's claims about Iraq's WMD.

There is something distasteful about the smearing of organisations and individuals who work with victims of sex-traffickers. The stories they hear every day are not about meeting interesting new people but about rape, beatings and horrific levels of violence. Sex-trafficking explodes the myth that selling sex is a pleasant and freely chosen occupation: if it's so attractive to British women, why are so many poverty-stricken foreign women lured into the UK to meet the demand for paid-for sex?

For all its shortcomings, Project Acumen arrives at the conclusion that more than half of the women involved in the off-street sex trade in England and Wales are foreign. And while its figures are almost certainly too low, even Acumen admits that thousands of foreign women have been trafficked into England and Wales. In the 21st century, they are being forced to work in conditions which a judge in a recent trafficking case described as "the closest to human slavery you could possibly get".

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