(Top photo: A sex workers' rights protest in 2014. Photo by Jake Lewis)
"Pop-up brothels" full of trafficked women are sweeping the country, according to a spate of recent reports. In Newquay, police say they've located 14 since July (reported by the Guardian, BBC, Daily Mail, Mirror); in Swindon there are said to be 30 opening a week (Telegraph, BBC, Metro).
The Sun recapped the stories like this: "The majority of working girls in the pop-up brothels have been trafficked from Eastern Europe, and some of them are kept as slaves." (The link from "slaves" goes to a story about labour slavery run by traveller gangs.)
The tale – valiant but kindly cops, the suggestion of women chained to radiators – with its trendy packaging in hipster terminology has been guzzled up by the press. Basic fact-checking, meanwhile, is absent from the reports.
According to National Crime Agency statistics, in the last 12 months recorded, Devon and Cornwall police have made just one referral for sex trafficking to the National Referral Mechanism (the government channel to identify and support victims of trafficking in the UK), and that was for an underage girl from the UK. Meanwhile, seven men (from Romania, Vietnam and Lithuania), one woman and one girl (both from Vietnam) had been referred for labour exploitation.
In all the newspaper reports, the focus was on sex trafficking. "Insp Dave Meredith, sector inspector for Newquay, has concerns that sex workers from central and eastern Europe may have been trafficked into the UK by organised gangs," claimed the Guardian.
However, Meredith admitted to VICE: "We haven't managed to locate any traffickers as a direct result of visiting pop-up brothels."
More bafflingly, when I checked out Meredith's claim – repeated by every news outlet which covered the story – that "the sex workers are the victims so we try to offer them help and signpost them to various agencies", I hit a dead end. During our initial interview, Meredith refused to tell me which agencies he was referring to, saying it was "between him and the sex workers", and later, via email, told me to "google it". I put in an FOI request and received the following reply:
"Officers have spoken to a number of sex workers so far, however none have yet agreed to be put in contact with a charity or support mechanism. If a sex worker did require help, the police officer would go on the internet and look for details of charities that may be able to provide some support/advice."
So, in Newquay, contrary to news reports: no Eastern European trafficking victims have been found, and "signposting to agencies" is, as yet, a hypothetical concept. If the situation arose, cops would "google it".
"It's not safe. We can't afford to do the things we did before when we were in one place."
On to Swindon. Here, in the last 12 recorded months, one Vietnamese woman has been referred to NRM for sexual exploitation, one woman (also from Vietnam) for labour exploitation, one Polish man for labour exploitation and one male minor from Vietnam for labour exploitation.
The figures are at odds with depictions of Swindon's pop-up brothels (30 opening a week) as hotbeds of trafficking.
A spokesperson for Wiltshire Police explained: "The majority of women who work in the 20 to 30 brothels (approx figs) do not come to us; we engage with them and ask them if they need help, but usually they say they don't need it – often because they are earning good money, are in good living conditions, are happy with what they have."
Not quite the story reported in the press then.
Pop-up brothels – if we have to call them that – are a thing. Easily available short-let accommodation, payable online, is one factor. Crucially, though, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), it's the police themselves who are causing this phenomenon.
"A lot of women come to us saying they've been forced to move on," says ECP's Niki Adams. "Women who've been in a place ten years or longer, then the police come round and – while they may not arrest anyone – say, 'You have a few days to close down or we'll come back and prosecute you.'"
Adams tells me about a group of London women who've been forced to move six times in six months. "They had a good arrangement to begin with; two flats off a central staircase with a maid who worked for both. They got threatened with prosecution, moved somewhere else, got threatened with prosecution again. It became a deteriorating situation."
"The laws should be got rid of so we can work together. We don't want to be running from the police all the time."
K (not her real name), a Thai woman living in Kent, has been working in brothels since 2008, supporting her child and sending money home to her family. Last year she was arrested for brothel-keeping based on the fact that the flat was rented in her name.
"Some of the other girls now rent holiday flats for a couple of weeks at a time," she says. "I join them sometimes because I really need the money, but I am so scared to be caught by the police again. We have to work like this, because if we stay too long in one place there is more chance the police will come and close us down. I saw they were calling this pop-ups.
"It's not safe. We can't afford to do the things we did before when we were in one place. No one is going to pay for CCTV or extra locks. We don't have time to get regular clients. If we did get attacked I don't know if we would report it because the police would just close us down again."
It would be wrong to assume that exploitation is not happening in these fly-by-night brothels, but the police's focus on saving people from supposed trafficking is typically disingenuous and blind to the real problems sex workers face.
"Police always use that term when migrant women are involved," says Adams. The results of last year's raids on sex workers in London and Leeds – also carried out in the name of trafficking – were deportations rather than rescues.
Perhaps plain old labour exploitation isn't juicy enough for headlines, or doesn't provide enough cover for raids. Either way, it's hard to see how these cat-and-mouse tactics are helping anyone: if there are trafficking victims, they aren't being found; relatively stable working environments are being disrupted and working conditions deteriorate.
"We want to work together, rent a flat together and not be frightened that the police will break in at any time," says K. "The laws should be got rid of so we can work together. We don't want to be running from the police all the time."