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The dark side of human trafficking: anti-trafficking

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Kate Townshend
WVoN co-editor

When is the anti-trafficking side of the sex work line the wrong side to stand?

It might seem like a joke with no punch line, but a spate of worrying evidence has emerged recently suggesting that some of the movements trying to stop trafficking may themselves be making the problem worse.

Take Nicholas Kristof for example, on paper at least, very clearly one of the good guys.

The Pullitzer prize winning journalist wrote an angry article in the New York Times earlier this year calling out website as a ‘godsend to pimps’ allowing people to ‘order girls online like a pizza.’

It all sounds eminently sensible, but this Guardian article points out the dangers implicit in driving sex work underground, and sex workers themselves further towards the hinterland of society.

Worse still, many anti-trafficking policies fall rather too short of hating the sinner but loving the sinned against.

In the US, current legislation requires organisations seeking to combat HIV and other problems to sign up to an anti-prostitution loyalty pledge, or risk seeing government funding and support slashed.

According to PEPFAR Watch, an initiative for CHANGE (the centre for health and gender equality) set up to monitor the strategies and successes of the US plan to tackle Aids, this frequently means that sex workers are deprived of the very help that is most essential and accessible to them.

And it’s not just an American issue. The Empower Foundation speaks for sex workers in Thailand, asserting their rights and contributions in a society that often wants to reduce them to criminals or victims.

Their report Hit & Run: Sex Workers’ Research on Anti-trafficking in Thailand warns of the dangers of failing to distinguish between sex work and trafficking, stigmatising all of those in the industry and making it harder for real cases of trafficking to be addressed.

Empower director Chantawipa Apisuk claims we are at ‘a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry who are being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women being exploited by traffickers.’

It’s a huge claim. But one that UK politicians might also see levelled against them.

A recent letter to David Cameron from the Human Trafficking Foundation accused the government of a ‘staggering lack of understanding’ in dealing with sex slavery in Britain.

Currently, those women brought into the country and forced into sex work against their will may find that ‘rescue’ is a relative concept, when it merely means swapping one prison for another.

Little distinction is made between trafficked women and other illegal immigrants so being freed from their pimps and captors may simply mean relocation to a detention centre, or deportation; often returning to the power of the gangs who trafficked them in the first place.

Of course, there are organisations in place that do try to listen to the voices of trafficked women.

Eave’s Poppy Project provides support and practical help for women who have been victims of exploitation.

Their director Abigail Stepnitz is clear that current policy on trafficking is not good enough: ‘Imprisoning vulnerable victims is unfair and unjust.

‘The traffickers take away their freedom and force them to do unimaginable things and once they escape, if they escape, the UK Government takes away their freedom yet again.’

So what’s the moral of the story? We all know that trafficking is an evil that no society aiming to call itself civilised with a straight face should tolerate.

But there’s little point in tackling trafficking if we destroy the trafficked themselves along with it. There are no easy answers here, but asking ourselves the hard questions might be a start.

  1. MezzoPiana says:

    There are some easier answers, though. Sweden has the best one as far as I’m aware: criminalise and prosecute the johns and pimps whilst supporting the prostituted. Reportedly, traffickers now don’t think it’s worth taking girls to Sweden and so they go to Amsterdam instead where the authorities are extremely lax about investigating trafficking reports.

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