Following an online summit hosted on Monday with politicians, senior police officers and diplomats, campaigners have urged the Home Secretary Priti Patel to recognise and tackle what has been referred to as the “industrial-scale sexual exploitation” of Romanian women by UK men within prostitution, by Dame Diana Johnson, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on commercial sexual exploitation.

Dame Johnson implored the UK to change its legislative approach to dealing with prostitution, and pointed to countries including France, Ireland and Sweden where the demand that drives sex trafficking is tackled by criminalising the purchase of sexual access, whilst victims are decriminalised and pimping websites are shut down.  

As The Guardian highlights: “DS Stuart Peall, who led a nine-month investigation into a gang that trafficked Romanian women for sex across north-west England, also expressed frustration with the legislation in the UK. He said: “Until we bust the business model of sex trafficking, by cracking down on demand and pimping websites, the sex trafficking will continue. Right now, sex trafficking is too profitable and too easy in this country”.”

This is not a new problem, but one that has sadly been getting worse for many years and has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. Romania has been described as the “sex trafficking factory of Europe”, and is ranked by the European Commission as one of the leading source-countries for victims of trafficking. Indeed, the exploitation of Romanian women in prostitution is not solely a UK problem, but is also the scourge of other countries such as Germany and The Netherlands where legalised prostitution has created a thriving market where human bodies are the product; a marketplace maintained by the trafficking of women and children directly into it.

The UK certainly lags behind on combatting the systematic sexual exploitation of those in prostitution, and our legal approach sits squarely on the fence, where the selling and buying of sexual access is not in itself prohibited, but almost all associated activities including brothel keeping and soliciting are, creating what the Fawcett Society described as a “worst of both worlds” approach.

This has resulted in a situation where it remains extremely profitable for ruthless pimps, punters, and traffickers to exploit foreign women (although of course not exclusively) and to force them across borders and into the UK prostitution market. As The Guardian points out, this has created nothing short of a “pimp’s paradise”.

Tackling this requires a multi-pronged approach, and one that takes into account the exponential growth of exploitation that the internet, and the websites that advertise this exploitation, has played in facilitating. While Coronavirus has reduced the number of on-street interactions, this should not be taken as an indicator that the exploitation has reduced. All that has happened, sadly, is that the exploitation has been displaced to an online setting.

CEASE urges the Government to act swiftly in response to this human rights crisis: firstly, the Government must introduce a legal framework that no longer criminalises prostituted individuals, but criminalises those who attempt to purchase sexual access.  As evidence from Sweden shows, this dramatically reduces the number of individuals trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation within prostitution, as well as reducing the overall number of women in prostitution, thus reducing the exploitation further.

Secondly, as the #TraffickingHub campaign shows, it isn’t just the advertising of prostitution that is linked to trafficking and exploitation, but arguably more “normalised” aspects of the commercial sex industry such as mainstream porn websites. Powerful pornography websites, like Pornhub, drive demand for trafficked individuals for child sexual abuse material and other illegal acts. We are calling for urgent Government action via the Online Harms legislation to stop these companies proliferating illegal and harmful content with impunity. It is vital that the new Regulator’s requirements upon pornography websites, and its ability to enforce them, are stringent and correctly focused.

While the UK is currently failing in its duties to protect the most vulnerable, and to prevent the extreme exploitation of women and children from across the world, there is still an opportunity present. An opportunity to build on the work already done by countries such as Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland, where the purchase of sexual access is criminalised, as well as leading the way in terms of new approaches to the exploitation that the internet has facilitated. Though complex, this is not an insurmountable problem.The UK simply needs to get to the root of the issue and tackle the attitudes that drive this industry once and for all.