The shocking tale of John Davies, pro-prostitution academic & trafficking denier, recently jailed for fraud

John Davies, Olsi Vullnetari, Benjamin Davies
John Davies, Olsi Vullnetari, Benjamin Davies

On May 16th 2016 a 58-year-old man named John Davies stood in the dock at Southwark Crown Court in London, UK, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for charity fraud. Davies’ co-defendants, Olsi Vullnetari and Benjamin Davies (John’s 31-year-old son), were convicted, respectively, of fraud and money laundering.

Davies and Vullnetari had stolen more than £5 million donations to the Sompan and Kurbet Foundations, charities originally set up to help impoverished and abused women and children. Benjamin had laundered money from the scam through various bank accounts in Hungary, the Netherlands, Thailand, South Africa, America, the UAE, and Ireland.

Dr John Davies holds a doctorate from the University of Sussex, and is the author of a book on the trafficking of Albanian women. He is listed on the website of the University of the Witwatersrand, African Centre for Migration & Society, as a Visiting Research Fellow; was previously a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, UK; a member of the European Commission’s expert network on migration, integration, and social cohesion; and was also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research at the University of Sussex.

Davies has travelled the world since the 1990s lecturing on the international sex trade, and campaigning against all laws involving prostitution. He evaded justice until recently because a number of academics and pro-prostitution activists supported him, providing a smoke screen for his activities. I personally heard allegations of Davies’ charity scams as far back as 1999. I, and other feminist abolitionist colleagues, have regularly challenged other pro-prostitution academics and human rights experts on their collaboration with Davies and their refusal to condemn him. Each and every one have defended Davies and refused to accept his bad character.

This man has long been described by police as “Mr Teflon,” because none of the many serious allegations against him would stick. Those of us who followed Davies’ activities have often been threatened with libel by him. I am now able to tell at least part of the story of John Davies because I responded to his threat of libel by gathering all the evidence to prove my allegations — that Davies has long been suspected of being a baby trafficker, among other things — could be substantiated.

In the 1980s, John Davies, a former lay preacher, was twice convicted of fraud and deception in Britain for using fake credit cards while working for a British charity in Romania. Throughout the 1980s Davies built up a company, the King Soloman foundation, which, according to Davies, matched orphaned babies with loving adoptive parents. But it was alleged that the birth mothers were prostituted women, many of whom had been raped, and that Davies coerced the women to give up the babies, charging $20,000 to wealthy, childless Americans.

Davies’ defense, when finally arrested for baby trafficking was, ”My foundation is registered with the Croatian authorities and we are simply trying to find homes for these unfortunate children who would otherwise be abandoned on the streets of Zagreb.” Private investigators found that his adoption service operated completely outside the official adoption services of the countries involved. This “child location service” was run from his home in Transylvannia in southern Romania and another base in Sgezed, the capital of southern Hungary. Davies employed social workers as agents to scour hospitals and orphanages in Hungary, Romania, Moldovo, Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania to find pregnant women willing to have their babies adopted abroad.

In 1993, Davies was added to the Interpol Watch List as a suspected baby trafficker; he has been banned from at least two countries, arrested and held in prison in Croatia on suspicion of baby trafficking, and investigated by the European Commission for suspected fraudulent use of a grant. In 2009, Davies was acquitted of two counts of historic child sexual abuse. The conviction and subsequent imprisonment of Davies will perhaps be a challenge to those that have supported and defended this man, such as his former academic colleagues and other campaigners for legalized prostitution.

I first met John Davies aka John Shelton, aka John Glyn Davies, aka Glyndwr Selwyn Owain Davies at a conference in London in 1999. I had recently begun researching the trafficking of women and children into the UK, and had been invited to an event on the topic organized by the European Commission (EC). I remember being bored, listening to speaker after speaker trot out acronyms, clichés, and empty promises. “Croatia is leading the way in detecting these dangerous criminals!” and “No country is doing more to educate potential victims as Montenegro,” etc. Two police officers approached me, asking if I knew of Davies via my networks, and told me he was suspected of trafficking babies throughout Eastern Europe. A few inquiries amongst my circle of colleagues bore fruit.

I researched Davies on international newspaper databases and found a number of articles written by reputable journalists, as well as references in books and in academic articles on baby trafficking. None had been amended or corrected (common practice if there are inaccuracies that might prejudice or libel anyone mentioned in the piece).

Janice Raymond, former co-director of the feminist abolitionist NGO Coalition Against Trafficking of Women (CATW) and author of Not a Choice, Not a Job had also been tracking Davies’ activities for a number of years, and told me that she has heard prostitution advocates — including academics and individuals from human rights organizations — defend Davies and refuse to believe the evidence against him. But, as Raymond evidences in her book, the heat was turned up so high against Davies in the late 1990s that even groups of hardcore pro-prostitution activists disowned him.

A newspaper report in the Independent March 27, 1995 by Leonard Doyle shows that, two years earlier, Davies and others were involved in what US diplomats described as a “baby smuggling/adoption scheme” involving 28 Romanian children. That year, Davies was placed on Interpol’s list of suspected baby traffickers.

“The children were taken to ‘fattening farms’ in southern Hungary and were stranded there until the US gave into pressure to allow them into the country,” wrote Doyle.

In 1998 Hungary attempted to deport Davies, and he appealed for support to the Stop Traffic listserv, most of whose members were pro-prostitution. “The appeal was evidently successful, and Davies was allowed to remain in the country,” writes Raymond in Not a Choice, Not a Job. “However, even two major pro-prostitution groups, the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking in Women (STV) and La Strada, announced they were withdrawing their cooperation with Davies and the foundations he was affiliated with — the Salomon Alapitvany Foundation (Hungary) and the Morava Foundation (Albania and Romania).

Davies responded, “There is no fraud investigation, the project in Hungary was audited after the unsubstantiated allegations last year and the audit did not uncover any misuse of funds.” On May 7, 1999, Davies sent another response claiming he had provided the EU with “a considerable file of material since those allegations and after several weeks… The EU has not requested any repayment of the grant.” I know of no official EU or EC documentation confirming Davies’s responses.”

I also discovered, via colleagues in the media, a failed attempt by Davies to take out an official complaint against the Sunday Times newspaper in 1999. The article alleged that Davies was accused of illegally supplying children from Eastern Europe for adoption in the West, and was under investigation for alleged fraud involving a £140,000 grant awarded by the EC. Davies has long advocated for the legalization of the sex trade, and had applied for the EC grant in conjunction with the Prostitution Information Centre in Amsterdam, which publishes a “pleasure guide” to the city’s window brothel area, runs tours of the area, and campaigns for “sex workers'” rights.

The article also disclosed that Davies had been banned from America and Romania, arrested in Croatia and twice convicted of criminal deception in Britain. The grant from the European Commission was supposedly to create a “help service” for women in roadside prostitution in Szeged, southern Hungary. But an expert sent by the commission to investigate the project said he suspected much of a first installment of £60,000 paid to Davies may have been used for “personal enrichment”.

“I am returning full time to my DPhil studies in sex work migration,” wrote Davies to the Press Complaints Commission as part of his “rebuttal”… “And am grateful to have the support of my professors and other colleagues at this difficult time. I am very fortunate that many of my academic colleagues and friends are close enough that they are not influenced by reports that do not match the reality of my life and work.”

However, the finding of the Press Complaints Commission that Davies had not been unfairly represented by the journalist by claiming the EU anti-fraud unit was investigating allegations of fraud, and the public condemnation of Davies by the hardcore pro-prostitution groups did not appear to deter Davies from seeking further funding for prostitution-related activities. In 2002 Davies was awarded a grant from a Norwegian funder for anti-trafficking work in Bangladesh. In Dhaka, he worked as a chief technical advisor for the Ministry of Women and Children’s project to stop trafficking.

“When allegations of trafficking and evidence of exclusion orders caught up with Davies, his relationship with government anti-trafficking programs was severed in 2002, his funding was stopped, and he left Bangladesh,” writes Raymond in Not a Choice, Not a Job. Raymond sent me a copy of her letter to a senior figure in the anti-trafficking world, who was based in Bangladesh who reported the information about Davies to senior officials. The Secretary for the Women and Children Affairs (MOWSA) discovered that Davies was involved in “women, drug and gambling related illegal activities.” Davies had his funding from the Norwegians revoked and his post in Bangladesh was terminated.

Davies spent many years, first as a DPhil candidate and then as a Visiting Research Fellow, at the Centre for Migration Research at the University of Sussex in England. In 2007 the University awarded Davies a doctorate. During his time at the Centre, Davies travelled the world, attending conferences, often as a speaker, presenting as an expert on trafficking.

At various times the Sussex Centre has given home to students and visiting research fellows who define trafficking simply as “facilitated migration” or argue “trafficking is a myth.” Passing through its doors have been sex industry apologists including Jo Doezema, a key campaigner for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), an international pro-prostitution organization that campaigns for blanket decriminalization of all aspects of the sex trade; Nicola Mai whose research on trafficking usually concludes that concern about it comes from a “moral panic;” Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, who has compared feminist abolitionists to, “those nineteenth-century middle-class women who took it upon themselves to ‘help, control, advise and discipline the unruly poor, including their sexual conduct.'”

Olsi Vullnetari, Benjamin Davies, and Julie Vullnetari were all post graduate students at the Sussex Centre. Julie Vullnetari is Davies’ former partner, and assisted him in his field research in Lyon, France. Like Davies, she holds a DPhil in Migration Studies from the University of Sussex. In his acknowledgement section, Davies thanks Vullnetari for her “outstanding work as the cultural advocate” and dedicates the book to her. Julie Vullnetari, who was once previously UNIFEM consultant on trafficking in South Asia, was arrested with Davies in Croatia in 1995 on suspicion of baby trafficking. (Only Davies was charged.) Julie is the sister of Olsi Vullnetari. Olsi, who was awarded a Master’s Degree in Migration Studies in 2004 from the Centre for Migration Research at Sussex, was also a regular speaker at international conferences about migration issues. He also ran a lucrative consultancy business writing expert court reports on behalf of Albanian asylum seekers.

John Davies and his son Benjamin, the Vullnetari siblings, Agustín, Doezema and Mai hold similar opinions about the trafficking of women into the sex trade: Trafficking (or “migrant sex work”) is often a choice that women from poor countries make in order to earn lots of money and avoid working in factories.

Like Agustín, John Davies considers anti-trafficking campaigners to be more dangerous than the actual traffickers. In 2006, Davies spoke at an academic conference in Oxford, UK, as a PhD candidate from the Sussex Centre for Migration Research at the University of Sussex. The title of his paper was “Force and Deception: the Tools of the Anti-Traffickers.”

Davies’ book based on his PhD research, “My Name is Not Natasha: How Albanian Women in France Use Trafficking to Overcome Social Exclusion (1998-2001),” was published by Amsterdam University Press in 2009. A review copy landed on my desk from the publisher, and I decided to Google him to see if any further accusations had been made about him. By pure chance, a local newspaper report came up that outlined a case against Davies that was being heard that week in court. Davies was accused of sexually abusing two girls, aged six and eight, during the years 1980–81. The trial lasted eight days at the end of which he was cleared.

An academic named Nicola (Nick) Mai had also been awarded a PhD at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research at Sussex University. The year that Davies’ book was published, and he was cleared in court, the British parliament was deciding whether to introduce a clause in the 2009, s. amendment of the the Sexual Offences Act 2003 by adding a section that would make it an offence in England and Wales to pay for the services of a person in prostitution who has been coerced into providing sexual services. Unsurprisingly, the suggestion that the state should criminalize any form of sex buying brought the polarized arguments out into the open. Mai, then a researcher at the University of North London, was completing his publicly funded research project entitled, “Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry” in which he concluded that very few (six per cent was his estimate) people in prostitution were trafficked or coerced into selling sex. He was a supporter of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), a bogus union founded in 2000 by a couple of radical anthropologists who believed that the rights of people involved in prostitution could only be won through collective organizing. Mia had engaged members of the IUSW in his research.

The IUSW is far from the left wing, pro-worker organization its founders intended it to be. Some former members have told me that it is more of a mouthpiece for pimps and punters; and rather than warning them to “beware” as did its founders, the IUSW today welcomes sex industry bosses as members with open arms.

Pro-prostitution activists welcomed the report, because it suited their argument that the law should not interfere in the sex trade, on account that there is barely any abuse, coercion, or illegality involved, and that trafficking is only a problem for the victims because of their illegal immigration status.

“We will only successfully target trafficking within the sex industry when we make policy based on evidence and in reality,” commented Catherine Stephens of the IUSW as the report was launched. Stephens’ praise of the research was unsurprising. Not only did the conclusion suit the IUSW, Stephens was both a researcher and Advisory Group member on the research. Thierry Shaffauser, an activist with the IUSW, was also hired as a researcher on the project. The interviews were facilitated by a number of pro-prostitution organizations as well as the IUSW, for example, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), the XTalk Project, the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP), SW5, and the Safe Project.

Mai published the research to coincide with the campaign by abolitionists in the UK to introduce a version of the Nordic Model. There was a huge opposition to this proposed law led by academics such as Mai, and pressure groups such as the ECP and the IUSW.

Mia’s research was published in October 2009, but once his summary of findings were published (in July that year), he and other pro-prostitution campaigners began using it as a tool with which to convince MPs and Lords to vote against the sex buyer clause.

In the meantime, Nick Davies (no relation to John), known for his “special investigations” in the Guardian newspaper, was researching a major piece on trafficking. In 2009, the investigative journalist published a 4,500 word article in the Guardian in which he claimed that anti-trafficking campaigners had created a “moral panic” around trafficking, and that, “The UK’s biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution,” which suggested that there are few victims. What the investigation actually found is that the police failed to find traffickers, and that on the rare occasions that they did, juries failed to convict.

But that story, in which Nick Mai and the pro-prostitution umbrella organization, the UK Network of Sex Work Projects were favourably quoted, is nowhere near as sexy as the one that Davies and his accolades would have us believe. It is far more appealing to most to accept a line that, aside from the rare exception, the foreign women that pack out the brothels across the UK popped on a plane in their country of origin and found themselves a job flogging flesh to strangers.

Nick Davies’ Guardian article ran at the height of a huge debate in parliament and amongst campaigners about whether or not to criminalize the buyers of sexual services in order to make the UK unappealing to traffickers (a legislative model that had been successfully introduced in Sweden in 1999, and in a number of other countries since).

The investigation earned Davies a nomination at the annual Erotic Awards, an event run by a pornographer. Davies, however, did not pick up the prize — a bust of a golden flying penis.

The Nick Davies article contained the line, “an unlikely union of evangelical Christians with feminist campaigners, who pursued the trafficking tale to secure their greater goal, not of regime change, but of legal change to abolish all prostitution.” The attempts by Nick Davies, Nick Mai and other pro-prostitution activists to scupper the introduction of the law failed, and it was introduced early in 2010.

Shortly after the trial for child sexual abuse, at which Davies was acquitted, I read a letter in the Guardian newspaper signed by several academics, including John Davies, and other pro-prostitution campaigners, praising Nick Davies’ article. This spurred me on to revisit my research on the neoliberal takeover of the academy in relation to prostitution.

I wrote to Professor Richard Black, the then Director of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, and Davies’ DPhil supervisor whose signature is on the letter granting Davies ethical approval for his field research, and included as an appendix in the book. I had emailed Black (having put in several telephone calls to the University press office and receiving no response) to ask for a comment about what I had termed the “trafficking denial” that appeared to be so prevalent in the academy in general, and his department in particular. I had heard during his recent trial for child sexual abuse, a number of academics praising Davies and providing character witness statements in his favour as part of the defense. One had traveled from New Zealand, and spoke of Davies’ integrity and commitment to the fight against sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and girls.

My email asked if Black could shed any light on this culture of “trafficking denial” and offered examples of individuals who take this line, such as Julie Vullnetari, John Davies, and Nick Mai. I also pointed out that Davies had been suspected of trafficking by Interpol, had been expelled from certain countries on the strength of those suspicions, and had been arrested and imprisoned in Croatia. Black decided not to reply to me, but rather pass on my email, without my knowledge or consent, to Davies.

I later received a letter before action from Davies lawyers. Davies accused me of having no evidence to substantiate my claims in the email to Black, and threatened to sue me unless I made a public apology to him, and gave £5,000 that Davies would donate to a “women’s charity” of his choice. In response, I gathered the evidence to prove my allegations, and more. Once I submitted the evidence to Davies lawyer, which included details of Davies’ name being placed on the Interpol watch list, court documents from Croatia, expulsion orders from Romania, and evidence of the EU fraud investigation, I heard nothing, which was as I expected… Until I was sent a link to a website named The Naked Anthropologist, facilitated by Laura Agustín, a pro-prostitution associate of the University of Sussex.

The post was entitled, “Important Enemies: Hating sex work academics or hating research?” and was pegged on a remark I had made at a feminist conference on a panel about prostitution. In discussing research on the sex trade conducted by anthropologists, I made a joke. “If I had one bullet in a gun,” I quipped, “the pimp wouldn’t get it, but the anthropologist would.” Bearing in mind how much I actually hate pimps, and also the fact that I campaign against violence, it should have been fairly clear that this remark was not meant to be serious. The thread attracted a number of pro-prostitution activists to join in, including John Davies, who, when I asked what had happened to his threats of libel against me, promised that he would return to the issue once he had more time, and that he would see me in court.

That message was the last I heard from or about Davies until his name popped up again on the crown court list. I once again emailed Richard Black, who has since left the University of Sussex for another institution, to ask if he would give me an answer to my original questions about the culture of “trafficking denial” that I had posed in the email which Black passed directly to John Davies. He denied that there is any “dominant discourse coming from post graduate students from the Centre” surrounding the sex trade, saying, “In the Centre, we had at any one time during the late 2000s some 20-30 students working on various aspects of migration and very few of them engaged with either trafficking or sex work.” Yet, I have not been able to find one graduate who takes the position that the sex trade is inherently harmful to women, having searched through dozens of published academic articles and papers from such students.

The pro-prostitution and trafficking denial that is foundational to the academic culture at the Centre becomes even less surprising in light of the fact that student accommodation at the University of Sussex was literally used as a brothel by an international prostitution ring. In 2014, five men and a woman were convicted of trafficking after recruiting at least 53 “poor and vulnerable” Hungarian women into the UK, prostituting a number of them at the University of Sussex.

In the meantime, John Davies, currently behind bars, counting the years until he is a free man, is surely finished as a reputable academic, receiving grants, delivering papers at conference, and advising at governmental level what we should do about the trafficking of women into the sex trade… Or is he? Will those in the academic world that are hell-bent on nurturing any support they can in their quest to sanitise the sex trade still see him as one of their own?

Julie Bindel is a journalist, author and feminist campaigner against male violence. Her book on the global sex trade will be published in early 2017.

Copyright © 2016. Julie Bindel and Feminist Current

Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel is a journalist, a feminist campaigner against male violence, and the author of The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth.