The UK needs to ensure its immigration laws don’t harm trafficked women

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In 2018, 1,981 women and girls were recorded as victims of human trafficking in the UK.

Of these individuals, 1,263 were victims of sexual exploitation — 880 women and 383 girls.

Human trafficking involves the exploitation of people, against their will, generally for financial gain. In most cases involving male victims, the subject is forced to work for little or no pay in poor working conditions, usually to pay off a debt. In most cases involving female victims, trafficking involves sexual exploitation — a phrase which in this case means repeated rape, physical abuse, and forced prostitution.

Because of the nature of this type of abuse, the number of actual victims of trafficking is likely to be much higher than those officially recorded annually. In fact, the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates this number to be in the “tens of thousands.” Globally, the victims of sexually exploitative trafficking are mostly women and girls. The perpetrators are mostly men.

Other than British nationals, the most commonly reported victims in the UK are Chinese, Nigerian, Vietnamese, and Albanian. Year after year, vulnerable women and girls are smuggled into the UK and other countries in Western Europe by gangs of traffickers. Some are promised work or money to feed their families, or refuge from their war-torn/impoverished home countries. Once safely past border control, they are then forced into prostitution and sex slavery — placed in brothels, gang raped, or forced into marriages.

One woman who was smuggled to the UK from Nigeria told Equality Now about her experience of sex trafficking, explaining that, on her first day in England, a man “raped and beat” her, before forcing her to “have sex with lots of different men he brought to the house.” Another survivor from the UK described how she was prostituted from the ages of 14 to 27: “On the first night, some men took me to a flat and gang raped me for six hours,” she told the organization. “I don’t know how I made it out alive.” She went on to describe one particularly harrowing incident in which she was strangled by a john, who then resuscitated her and carried on raping her.

In 2014, the Home Office introduced a procedure intended to help identify and support victims of trafficking. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) was set up as a branch of the Home Office, with the intention of letting regulated authorities refer potential victims to the NCA. The system allows these individuals to be referred by a registered authority — such as a charity or local council — and then assessed on a case-by-case basis. If an individual’s trafficking circumstances appear genuine “beyond reasonable doubt” on first viewing, they are placed in secure accommodation and given a living allowance for 45 days. This period is called the “recovery and reflection” phase and is intended to allow survivors time to recover physically and emotionally from their experiences.

In theory, this is a step in the right direction, and it is a vast improvement on the previous system, in which potential victims’ cases were assessed right away. However, in practice, it has presented some problems.

The silence of sex trafficking victims is one of the reasons it is so difficult to estimate how many exist. Many women and girls stay silent for years, and this is partly to do with the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse they suffer at the hands of traffickers and johns. These men will often use threats to ensure their victims don’t try to escape or speak out against them. One Nigerian survivor who was referred to the anti-slavery charity Unseen, for example, said she was recruited by a man in Nigeria after her family was killed for their religious beliefs. The man had promised her work in the UK, given her a passport, and paid for her flight, but after arriving in the UK another man met her in the airport, took her back to his flat and repeatedly raped her. “I heard him discussing selling me, but in the end he decided to keep me for himself” she told Unseen. “I was told that if I tried to escape or ruin his reputation, he would kill me and sell my body to people who did voodoo for money”.

Threat has long been a means to keep victims silent and afraid. Women are often made to stay quiet through threats to the victims’ lives or the lives of their families, while others may be manipulated into believing they couldn’t survive without their abuser. The latter is often the case when the perpetrator is a partner or relative. Beyond direct threats, there are also environmental factors that can prevent a victim of trafficking from reaching out for help.

The “hostile environment” policy was first introduced in the UK by the Conservative government in 2012, as part of a method to make the UK environment so unwelcoming for illegal immigrants that they would ultimately “leave voluntarily.” This policy was in place for six years. Its darker side saw “Go Home” vans and adverts, which were placed in areas where ethnic minorities lived and frequented, as well as the “Deport first, appeal later” scheme. This scheme directly targeted asylum-seekers and worked on the premise that a person deemed an “overstayer” (a person who once had leave to enter or remain in the UK, but stays in the UK after the expiry of that leave) would have their right of appeal waved in favour of deportation, forcing them to appeal from their home country. The “hostile environment” policy was denounced by the then-new Home Secretary Sajid Javid after the Windrush scandal, which saw hundreds of Windrush generation citizens and their families harassed and deported (by the Home Office) after their citizenship records had been mistakenly destroyed (by the Home Office).

In 2015, while the hostile environment policy reigned, the domestic abuse charity SafeLives found evidence to suggest that black and minority ethnic (BME) migrant women in abusive situations stay silent 1.5 times longer than their white-British counterparts. There is a clear parallel between this trend and the hostile environment policy. Many migrant women and girls who are either exploited sexually while seeking asylum, or forced into marriages with British citizens using a UK Spouse Visa, are afraid to come forward out of fear they will be deported.

Although the hostile environment policy is no longer officially active, it is far from gone. In December, two human rights groups — Liberty and Southall Black Sisters — uncovered a secret data-sharing ring which encouraged police to report victims to immigration officers.

The policy may no longer be in effect, but its remnants remain, and continue to impact the attitudes of trusted authorities throughout the UK. This September, a Romanian woman with learning difficulties was found naked and beaten in a shed in East London. While it was beyond reasonable doubt that her case was a legitimate human trafficking instance (as witnesses saw her being forced to unload scrap metal into a van by her stepfather while naked, and there were clear signs of physical abuse and restraint), she was not allowed the 45-day “recovery and reflection” period. Instead, she was immediately put on a flight to Romania with her abusive stepfather. The reason for this is unknown, although it is evident that those involved acted because of discriminatory attitudes. According to reports, one of the officials who had fast-tracked her flights was heard joking, “This is good, Brexit works.”

The hostile environment policy has allowed the UK to become a breeding ground for discriminatory attitudes and it is clearly still impacting the way that human trafficking is handled by British authorities. What’s more, current laws to combat sex trafficking do not question why this form of abuse continues to happen and why the industry continues to grow as a national and global industry.

Currently in the UK, there is more legal risk for those who have been prostituted than those who have purchased them. While the purchase of sex in itself is legal, “solicitation” is not. In the context of prostitution, “soliciting” involves attempting to invite someone into a purchased sexual encounter in a public place. Police action on this law generally targets prostituted women, particularly streetwalkers. Although there are laws in place that criminalize “pimping” and the ownership of brothels, police generally turn a blind eye to these crimes.

Eliminating the purchase of sex and the incentive to exploit women in the UK is the only way to attack the root of the sex trafficking industry. There should be no loopholes, no “escort” services, and no so-called “massage parlours.” Some might argue against this, saying that we can’t know for certain whether women in the sex trade have been coerced into selling sex or not. But so long as we continue to legitimize an act in which a woman’s body is bought and sold, sexual exploitation will always be rife. And so long as women are being exploited through trafficking, the UK needs to ensure its laws support, rather than punish, victims.

Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a UK-based organization that offers free legal advice and application assistance for asylum-seekers, trafficking victims, and domestic abuse survivors.  

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