This week the anti-slavery organisation Justice & Care released a new report documenting the desperate need for the UK Government to do more in their fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. Since the Modern Slavery Act was introduced in 2015, the number of victims has skyrocketed, despite prosecutions effectively stagnating. In March 2019, there were only 322 convictions (of which only 219 were served), despite over 7,000 adults and children being identified as potential victims.

The report, produced in collaboration with the Centre for Social Justice, found that the most common type of exploitation encountered by police was sexual exploitation (33%), with an increase in pop-up brothels being a key factor. The debate as to whether trafficking is an inherent part of the sex trade is a contentious one, but here at CEASE UK we argue that the links are now impossible to ignore.

Of course, not all victims of trafficking are trafficked into the sex trade, nor are all those in the sex trade victims of trafficking. But in an increasingly globalised world, trafficking women and children into prostitution is more lucrative – and common – than ever before for exploiters. Other research shows that where sex-buying is tolerated by the State, trafficking subsequently explodes.

So why is there such resistance to recognising this? In part, this is likely due to the vested interests of those who profit from prostitution. In New Zealand for example, it benefits the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective – who are reliant on over – to that decriminalisation has only aided those within the sex trade, and that the country’s remarkably low rates of trafficking prove that trafficking and prostitution are separate phenomena.

However, despite New Zealand introducing prostitution decriminalisation in 2002, the country didn’t even recognise domestic trafficking as a form of trafficking until 12 years later. Further, the 2019 Trafficking in Persons report by the United States State Department found that:

“The NZ government did not report vigorously investigating perpetrators of domestic trafficking, including of those who exploit New Zealand children in sex trafficking”.

and that:

“…there was a lack of sufficient government coordination to provide assistance to child sex trafficking victims…”

It is no wonder then that New Zealand’s approach to prostitution seems like a success story within the context of human trafficking and modern slavery, when they don’t recognise one of the key demographics who are actually being trafficked. As the TIP report states:

New Zealand girls and boys (often from minority communities) are exploited in sex trafficking. Young children and teenagers are recruited into prostitution by gang members, boyfriends, family members, or others.

If the UK wants to get to grips with the modern slavery and human trafficking disaster that is occurring right on our doorstep, it is vital that the Government recognises the intrinsic links between that and prostitution. The rationale that decriminalisation will make things safer is misguided and dangerous.

For instance, within England and Wales it is already an offence under s53A Sexual Offences Act 2003 to pay for sex with somebody who has been forced or coerced (for these purposes, a victim of trafficking or modern slavery). However, notwithstanding the fact that conviction rates for this crime are negligible despite the increase in trafficking and slavery anyway, this is also compounded by the fact that many victims are unwilling to come forward due to fear of reprisals and further exploitation. For example, the MSPU report states:

“Leicestershire Police told us that Chinese women who are sexually exploited in pop-up brothels are the most difficult group to engage with. They rarely see themselves as victims because they may be receiving some money for their work, which they often need to either pay their debt for travel or to support their family at home. They are also fearful of deportation, as their immigration status is often irregular”

Therefore, for any convictions to take place it would be necessary to prove not only that the  punter had paid for sex, but that the prostituted individual was coerced which, as the above quote makes clear, is rarely straightforward. As a result, many exploiters are free to continue with impunity.

For this reason, the Government should see it as imperative that men who sexually exploit those within prostitution, whether they have been trafficked or otherwise, are criminalised as contributors to and propagators of systematic abuse and violence. Coupled with the total this would go some way in reducing the vast “supply and demand” network that exists when men are not deterred from paying for sex, and women are seen as products that can be sold.

The time has come for the Government and human rights organisations to recognise the inextricable links between prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation, and the human trafficking that fuels it, and push to end the commercial sexual exploitation of prostitution once and for all.