On Thursday the 20th of October, around midnight, police stormed six massage parlours in Soho and Chinatown, making arrests, padlocking doors and nailing up closure notices as part of "Operation Lanhydrock". From their shopfronts, the venues advertised themselves as purveyors of Chinese medicine – acupuncture, herbal remedies, cupping, massage – but all, apparently, offered sex alongside other services.
In its initial press release – regurgitated in the Evening Standard the following morning – the Met branded the mission a rescue effort to "find victims and take them to safety", claiming 18 arrests had been made, 12 for "immigration offences", but making no mention of trafficking victims.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the Met told me that, in fact, ten women were referred to a special reception centre as potential victims of trafficking and that 24 arrests were made. Seven of those were for "controlling prostitution for gain", meaning they were "managers or other staff". The other 17 were arrested on immigration grounds and have been detained by the UK Border Agency, which was present during the raids.
Sources told me that at least two senior police officers are dismayed after they were not briefed on the operation. It appears that Operation Lanhydrock wasn't the "joined-up, multi-agency" effort being touted in press releases.
The raids have also come in for criticism from sex worker NGOs. Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of National Ugly Mugs – which provides alerts about dangerous clients to 15,000 sex workers across the UK – is a member of the National Police Working Group on Prostitution. He said: "The raids are clearly in breach of the National Police Guidance. This is neanderthal policing based on hysteria and headline-chasing, not on evidence or intelligence. Whoever sanctioned these raids should seriously consider their position. A racist, anti-immigration narrative is leading to the attempted ethnic cleansing of marginalised people, hiding behind the language of 'rescuing vulnerable people'."
A spokesperson for the Met dismissed this, saying that the operation was "launched specifically in response to concerns raised by sex workers themselves, both directly to the local safer neighbourhood team and via charities which specialise in work in this sector".
"Concerns raised by the specific charity included the attitude of management at the premises targeted to individual women working within them," the spokesperson said. "As well as the perceived vulnerability of the women and or girls themselves. Other sex workers in the local area had told police they were concerned that the women working out of some of the massage parlours in Soho/West End might be trafficked, as their behaviour and work patterns appeared inconsistent with their experience of voluntary sex workers who had not been coerced into the industry."
The Met declined to tell me from which charities this information came.
Whether or not exploitation was taking place isn't known at this point. When sex workers' walk-up flats were raided in Soho in 2013, women – mainly Eastern European – were likewise removed as potential trafficking victims. The following year I sat in a flat with a Romanian sex worker who described what it feels like when 200 officers in riot gear want to rescue you.
"I came to work like normal, and after I see police running up the stairs," she told me. "They had dogs. They were shouting at me, 'Don't move, don't move.' They started yelling at me, asking me if I was trafficked because I'm from Romania. It was scary. I still shake when I see the police."
In 2013, the justification for the raids was, again, trafficking. But no evidence of trafficking was found. After a series of court cases and public outcry, 18 of the 20 closed flats were reopened, though many have now disappeared.
Under the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, definitions of trafficking conflict with common sense understandings of the term. It's deemed "irrelevant whether the victim consents to the travel". No coercion is necessary, meaning any undocumented migrant worker in the UK is fair game to be "rescued" as a trafficking victim. In some cases, descriptions of economic migrancy and trafficking collide.
None of this is to say that women in the raided Chinatown and Soho parlours weren't being trafficked or exploited, but, if they were, this is no place for murky definitions and symbolic victories.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) says it fears for both the undocumented women now in detention and for those who've been "rescued".
"Once you've been put into detention and queued up for deportation, you have to fight your case – apply for asylum, show you have a right to be here," says Laura Watson of the ECP. "Even if you're a victim of trafficking, the whole thing is a nightmare. Women Against Rape are working with genuine victims of trafficking and it doesn't matter how traumatised you are, the system is against you."
Questions also hang over the roles of those arrested for "controlling prostitution for gain", all but one of whom are women. Between April and September of this year, at least 50 sex work premises have been closed down by the police, leading almost invariably to the criminalisation of the women working there. "Controlling prostitution for gain" invokes ideas of sinister crime lords, but often the charge is used against maids and other staff.§
The day after the raids is sunny and cold. In Chinatown, red lanterns sway in the wind and the sky is blue above the boarded up parlours. On one street, a woman stands in the doorway of a shop offering massages. She says she hasn't heard about the raids yet and looks worried when I tell her.
Outside one of the parlours, an elderly Chinese couple peer at the closure notice, baffled. The woman says she had a massage booked for today and can't understand why the place has closed. Like many other people, the couple are unaware the venue was selling sex.
I was unable to contact any of the women who were detained in last week's raids. However, on the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue, in Soho, sex workers from the walk-ups expressed fear that their premises are next in line, and anger that crimes they themselves report are frequently ignored.
"As soon as we saw it on the news we shut down and went home," said one woman, who asked not to be named. "We're worried it'll be us next. We've been robbed recently and the police did nothing. If anything happens to us again, we're not going to them."
Another woman, who works as an escort and is based in Soho, said she feels guilt at being on the right side of the two-tier system with which sex work is policed. "Because I'm white and documented, I could tell the police I'm selling sex from the middle of Soho and they wouldn't give a shit," she said.
Back in Chinatown, local business owners tell me they're in the dark, some pointing to a report of the raids in a Mandarin paper that echoes the Met line on trafficking, others saying they know some of the women who've been detained but have no idea what's happened to them.
"I think they [the women] just want to earn money and go home," said one man, who's run a shop in Chinatown for 20 years. "The police can't close the place unless they say it's a public nuisance, but I never saw any troubles."
A look on Companies House shows the six parlours existed under ever-changing company names, which are regularly dissolved and re-registered again under a new director. There's cross-over between directors' names and, very likely, the same people collect money from all the locations. It's dodgy business practice. Not illegal, but it makes investigation harder.
The latest profiteer is, of course, the Met, which confiscated £35,000, bagged it up and, in the style of the best teenage Instagram gangsters, released trophy pictures to the press. Some of this will have been women's wages and, given the record of police confiscations from sex workers under the Proceeds of Crime Act, it's unlikely workers will see this money again.
A couple of weeks ago, with back pain, I went for a massage in one of the Soho parlours closed down under Lanhydrock. Thanks to the herbal medicines, acupuncture charts and massage chair in the window, I wasn't expecting the pink-lit room and bottle of baby oil that awaited me inside – I hadn't thought it was a brothel.
A woman in a red dress, who spoke patchy English, gave me a massage. It wasn't very good, but she was smiley and we both giggled as we tried to chat. I have no idea if she was selling sex alongside bad massages. I wonder if she's one of the women who's now in detention or with specialist services, if she'll be deported and if anyone will ask her what she wants. I hope she's safe.
The day after the raids I look through the window of her parlour, already a shabby cousin to the swanky restaurant next door, and it's now clearly a thing of the past. This is prime real estate. Extra copies of the closure order lie on the counter next to a maneki-neko – a Japanese lucky cat – whose arm is still waving back and forth.
More on VICE: