It isn't often a government minister destroys years of hard work in an afternoon. But one day last week, as the second nationwide operation against forced prostitution got under way, the Home Secretary made remarks which amount to an immeasurable setback for campaigners against sex-trafficking.
I could hardly believe my ears when Jacqui Smith admitted that some victims will face deportation when they are rescued by the police, and added that she intended to crack down on traffickers rather than on the British men who create demand for foreign sex slaves.
Where has she been for the past couple of years? Back in January, Tony Blair announced that he was about to sign (though not ratify) the Council of Europe convention that gives rights to victims of traffickers for the first time. The convention recognises that people – a small number are men – rescued from brothels need time to recover, offering a 30-day rest and recuperation period in which they can get medical treatment for physical injuries or sexually transmitted diseases and decide whether to give evidence in court.
In essence – and this is the really important point – it changes their status from that of illegal immigrants, liable to immediate deportation if they come from countries outside the EU, to victims of crime.
Blair's decision was a landmark, or so it seemed at the time. Now Ms Smith has gone back to warning that a guarantee of protection for all victims would be a "pull factor" for illegal immigration, in the horrible Home Office jargon, although she hopes that their exploitation will be taken into account when deciding their future.
Nor does she appear to understand that the responsibility for sex-trafficking lies not just with foreign gangsters but with the thousands of British men who pay to have sex with women from Ukraine or Thailand without caring whether they are doing it of their own free will. Last week a chief constable suggested that there are 4,000 women and men working as sex slaves in this country, and most campaigners believe that's an underestimate.
Even if it were correct and they were each having sex with only five men a day (another conservative estimate), that's 140,000 clients who are encouraging this shameful form of exploitation every week.
Trafficking is industrialised sex, and it's a myth to suggest that the men who use prostitutes are loners and social misfits; they're husbands and boyfriends who go to squalid flats and massage parlours with their mates because they like a bit of "variety". The sex trade in this country couldn't be more unlike the air-brushed adverts showing Billie Piper, silly girl, posing in her underwear.
Only last month the Italian interior minister, Giuliano Amato, said he would like to criminalise the act of paying for sex and write to men who do it, at their home addresses, which would have a dramatic effect on demand.
But Ms Smith doesn't even need to go to the trouble of changing the law: men found in brothels with trafficked women can be charged with rape, and, if they have had sex with girls under the age of 18, they have committed a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and are liable to up to seven years in prison.
Instead, the Home Secretary has reinstated two pernicious myths: that trafficking is an immigration issue, and that the bad guys are all foreign. Should I really be so surprised? Rape victims are treated appallingly in this country, even when they are British, so it may be naive to expect foreign women to be treated any better.Reuse content