Joan Smith: Sex with a trafficked woman is rape

A terrified woman who is being controlled by violence cannot give meaningful consent
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The Independent Online

No one knows how many women and girls are trafficked into this country for sex each year. In the 12 months until March, police conducted 343 operations against traffickers, arrested 1,456 people and seized £4.5m in assets. Last week, members of a Lithuanian gang who brought women to the UK to work as prostitutes - sex slaves, to be more accurate - received a total of 51 years in prison.

The gang's mastermind, Viktoras Larcenko, ran the racket with his 20-year-old sister, Rita. Many more women are being trafficked from Lithuania since it joined the EU last year, and the Home Office minister whose responsibilities include combating trafficking, Paul Goggins, will visit Vilnius next week to talk to the authorities there about the problem.

No one doubts the British Government's commitment to taking tougher action against trafficking, which has been made one of the priorities of its EU presidency. Concerned citizens who write to their MP and the Home Office - as thousands have, thanks to campaigns by Amnesty International and the Women's Institute - receive in reply a draft plan to combat trafficking, which covers prevention and protection for victims. Goggins has also agreed to continue funding the Poppy Project, the only refuge in the country for trafficked women, until the end of the current financial year. But, yesterday, when I chaired a packed fringe meeting on trafficking at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, the minister was pressed to do more.

The WI's 215,000 members have been horrified by television documentaries and testimonies from victims of traffickers, who may be expected to have sex with 20 or 30 men a day. Specifically, the campaigners want the British Government to ratify the new European convention against trafficking in human beings, which was opened for signature by the Council of Europe in May. The convention is the first piece of international law which protects the rights of trafficked people, whether they have been exploited for sex or forced labour - and campaigners say it would, if ratified by the UK, finally reveal the true extent of the problem.

At present, many trafficked women are not identified as such, and are deported from the country without having an opportunity either to recover or to provide the police with evidence against the gangs who brought them here. The new convention, which has already been signed by 15 governments, including Austria, Italy and Portugal, gives victims a breathing period of at least 30 days, during which they can receive medical treatment and other support after periods of enforced prostitution, which may have lasted as long as two years.

The effect of a rest and recovery period is dramatic, both in terms of victims' health and law enforcement. In Italy, where such a period is already mandatory, there have been 3,000 prosecutions involving around 8,000 traffickers over four years. Italy also has 200 shelters, compared to the UK's one.

But the convention also mandates temporary residence permits for trafficked people who may be in danger if they return to their country. And the British Government is worried about the impact of these elements of the convention, arguing that they could act as an incentive for false claims and might even encourage trafficking.

This is the point at which politics and the needs of desperately exploited people collide. Goggins spoke feelingly yesterday about the "disgusting" debate on asylum and immigration during the general election campaign, and made it clear that policy towards the victims of trafficking would have to fit into a "credible system" on these issues. Campaigners for trafficked women and girls recoil from such language, arguing that the British Government should see them primarily as people whose human rights have been horribly abused.

Another question on which the British Government is sending out mixed signals is what is euphemistically described as "demand". The discourse around trafficking frequently portrays it as a foreign phenomenon in which criminal gangs, usually from Eastern Europe, bring women and girls to this country to act as sex slaves.

This ignores the third side of the triangle, which is the thousands of British men who are quite happy to pay for sex with a beaten, terrified woman or underage girl who speaks barely any English.

Earlier this year, when she was solicitor-general, Harriet Harman made a landmark speech in which she said she would like to see men who have sex with trafficked women charged with rape.

At least one senior police officer supported her, but other ministers and the Crown Prosecution Service argue that the chances of securing a conviction are minimal. This may be little more than the admission of the difficulty of securing a rape conviction in this country at a time when the conviction rate is at an all-time low.

Yet a terrified woman who is being controlled by threats or actual violence cannot give meaningful consent to sex, a fact that needs to be brought home to British men, who either don't know or don't care about her status. They are just as much abusers as the gangs who traffic women in the first place - and the fact that the abuse is happening in this country places a moral responsibility on the British Government to give victims, at the very least, the breathing space prescribed in the new convention.

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