Trafficking, Migration and Borders

Anti-trafficking laws are used to deport migrants who are selling sex

Anti-trafficking raids are used to arrest and then deport migrants who are selling sex. When they are arrested, their money is seized by the police. Some of those who are arrested may be working in good conditions; some of them may be working in bad conditions or or even conditions of profound abuse or exploitation – but arrest, the seizure of money, and deportation do not constitute an acceptable, rights-based approach to any of these situations. For example, in October 2016, the Metropolitan Police raided six massage parlours in Chinatown, London. Police told the media that they were “bringing to justice those who seek to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable people”. The police seized cash from women’s lockers; made 24 arrests (none of which were for trafficking offences; 17 of which were for immigration offences), and ultimately deported 13 people, mostly women. In 2017, Wiltshire Police raided a Swindon flat, and announced that they would “make sure that any cases of human exploitation are prioritised … and the victims removed to safety”. The idea that the ‘victims’ would be taken to ‘safety’ speaks to the way in which these raids are presented to the public as about prioritising care for the women caught up in them. However, the three Romanian women who the police arrested were simply deported.  Anti-trafficking raids are thought of as protecting the women who are ‘rescued’ from commercial sex venues, but instead they mean arrest and deportation.

The deportation of undocumented or insecurely documented migrants, whether trafficked or not, has the effect of producing conditions which lead to trafficking. When undocumented migrants are justifiably fearful of attracting the attention of the state, they are unable to seek recourse for exploitation, and are intensely vulnerable to harm. We do not have to argue about who is and isn’t ‘really’ a trafficking victim in order to make sense of what is wrong here: this treatment is unjust for everyone. When progressives are uncritical about anti-trafficking policy, they help to push more people into this system of detention and deportation. This system is unjust in itself, and produces conditions where exploitation and harm thrive.

The Nordic model is used against sex workers and doesn’t help fight trafficking

The Nordic model is often advocated for on the basis that it will help to tackle trafficking. For example, in Northern Ireland, the Nordic model was introduced as part of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act 2015. However, the Nordic model worsens the conditions in which sex work occurs, which has obvious negative outcomes for trafficking victims. Research from the Swedish and Norwegian governments suggests that this law may increase the power of exploitative third parties such as traffickers. Research into the law conducted by the Norwegian government found: “there is much evidence that there is a tougher market with more violence”, and the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare writes that “there are probably more pimps involved in prostitution nowadays … the law against purchasing sexual services has resulted in a larger role and market for pimps”.

Under the Nordic model, migrants who sell sex are aggressively deported – even those whose immigration status is in order. People who sell sex thus have good reason to avoid the police, and it is when people need to avoid the police that exploitation and harm thrives. The criminalisation of prostitution and the criminalisation of migration work in tandem to produce precarity, vulnerability and harm in the lives of people who sell sex. The Nordic model is not a solution to these problems: instead, it maintains and in some ways intensifies them.  

So what are the real solutions?

The right for people to migrate in safety. Punitive immigration law makes people vulnerable to trafficking. Migrants have to pay potentially exploitative third parties in order to get into the country, and, on arrival, cannot assert their rights in the workplace for fear that making themselves visible to the state will lead to deportation. The best way to tackle this kind of exploitation is to make legal, safe migration routes easily accessible so that no one has to pay to cross a border. There are also other policies that would help: for example, repealing laws that prevent undocumented people from working in the mainstream economy (which has the effect of ensuring that they are working without rights or workplace protections), and putting in place a firewall between immigration enforcement and labour inspectors, or immigration enforcement and other kinds of services, such as housing services and healthcare. This would ensure that people could access employment rights, housing and healthcare without fear that discovery of their immigration status will lead to their deportation. Such a policy would tackle both the root causes of harm, by making undocumented people less precarious and thus less vulnerable to exploitation, and enable those currently experiencing harm to come forward and seek help.

Real resources for people who have been harmed. The UK is spending significant resources dedicated to trafficking and modern slavery on flawed criminal justice operations while dangerously neglecting the social spending that can achieve real, long-term positive outcomes for victims. Victims of trafficking have been deported, or left homeless and vulnerable to re-trafficking even after receiving a positive identification from the National Referral Mechanism. A rights-based and victim-centred approach to trafficking policy would fund holistic, long-term provision of the services trafficking victims need to rebuild their lives: legal assistance, housing and benefits, compensation, trauma-informed counselling, and language and employment support.

Labour rights. A push for increased rights for all workers, including trade union organising, in sectors that are associated with trafficking would help prevent bad conditions. Migrant farm workers, hotel workers, domestic workers, and workers in nail bars, brothels and car-washes all need better access to labour law, not only in theory but in practice. Union organising in these workplaces would go a huge way towards tackling exploitation – but the criminalisation of a workplace is a barrier to trade union organising within it, so sex workers need decriminalisation in order to join other workers in fighting for better conditions.