What a fuss there has been at the turn of this year about the trafficking of women. And quite right, too. For once, by accident or design, the Government managed to line up all its ducks in a row. The prelude was a high-profile case at a London court in which five Albanian men were convicted of conspiring to traffic women for sexual exploitation. This was the classic "white slavery" nightmare: young women were lured to Britain with the promise of sightseeing or bar-work, locked up for weeks on end, forced to service a dozen men a day and paid nothing at all for their pain.
This horrific case - the first to be tried under new legislation - generated an entirely predictable outcry against the oppression of women, the wickedness of men and the base immorality of prostitution. All of which was ideal preparation for the finale: the launch by the Home Office of a three-month period of consultation about a "UK action plan" to tackle human trafficking. We are all - you, me and everyone - invited to submit our comments and proposals, and we have until 5 April this year to do so.
So now, without further ado, is my offering. Am I alone in becoming just a little exasperated with tear-jerking stories of virginal East Europeans tricked into prostitution for the delectation of foreign men? Of course, as the recent court case illustrates, such things happen, and it is despicable that there are people out there venal enough to make money in this way and nothing short of tragic for the women hidden away, powerless, as sex slaves.
But how innocent and gullible does a girl have to be to follow an older man who promises a free tourist trip or well-paid waitressing work beneath the bright lights of London, Paris or wherever? Fifteen years after the communist bloc collapsed, the word should surely have got out to every last god-forsaken village in Lithuania, Romania and Moldova that extravagant promises of a new life of luxury in the other half of Europe are more than likely to remain promises and could well be a threat.
And if the word has not got out, there may be several reasons why. The governments of these countries may not have done enough to warn their young women of the risks. The governments of Britain and other countries may not have used the information channels available to them to publicise their own warnings. Perhaps border officials are insufficiently aware of the problem to question young girls at the point of departure or arrival - or choose to turn a blind eye. Some of the girls never see a border control at all; they are smuggled through in cars or vans.
But it also needs to be said that not all these girls are necessarily victims in the common sense of the word. For some, there is a trade-off that is more or less acceptable between a more prosperous or exciting life of prostitution abroad and a life without prospects at home. They make a personal accommodation - and who is to say that in their particular circumstances they are wrong? By no means all end up in slavery. If they did, it would be easier for governments, charities and others to deter a new generation of girls with lurid tales of the fate that has befallen their elders. Sex slaves are not the whole story.
Nor are the women. While almost every comment and example linked to the Home Office consultation has focused on prostitution, the document actually deals with human trafficking in all its forms. This includes men, women and children smuggled from every impoverished part of the world to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite of our economy for cheap labour.
It is possible that those who have come, quite legally, from the new European Union countries to seek work in Britain may reduce the market for illegal migrants. But the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers on the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay almost two years ago briefly illuminated the dark world of illegal labour in the most extreme way. It is no secret to anyone that illegal migrants can be found working for a pittance in sweatshops, restaurants and hotels in most British cities.
Transported here illegally, in debt for their passage, owing money to their families, cooped up 14 to a rented room and organised by so-called "gang-masters" - are these people really any less victims of human trafficking than the prostitutes from the other Europe? Gang-masters are now supposed to be "licensed", but is this really much of an improvement?
By focusing on the plight of women smuggled for prostitution, campaigners may believe they will draw attention to the whole issue of trafficking and slave-labour. What they are actually doing is pandering to moral prejudice and dealing in titillation. Trafficking and slavery are not specific to gender, they are reprehensible for all.Reuse content