Sex Workers Are Having Their Earnings Confiscated in Trafficking Stings
Raids – or "welfare visits" – carried out by police are supposedly conducted for safety, but they're harming sex workers and failing to identify genuine victims.
Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo
Anti-trafficking raids are often framed as vital rescue missions undertaken to save victims of modern slavery. However, according to Niki Adams – an English Collective of Prostitutes [ECP] spokesperson with firsthand experience of these raids – they aren't as well meaning as they sound.
Recalling one particularly harrowing example in Soho, which was justified as an anti-sex trafficking operation, Niki tells me: "250 police officers, armed with dogs and riot gear, broke down sex workers' doors and handcuffed them on the floor." Women were paraded in front of press cameras wearing only their underwear; others were cruelly "outed" as sex workers to their families.
Migrant women were hit hardest. "They were taken forcibly from their flats to a so-called place of safety, where they were interrogated about whether or not they were victims of trafficking," Niki explains. "They insisted they weren’t. As a result they were left outside in the middle of east London with barely any clothes on and told to make their way home alone." Research indicates this specific targeting of migrant sex workers isn’t uncommon – arrest rates have crept up since Brexit, and they often happen during these "anti-trafficking operations".
This is the reality of raids – known officially as "welfare visits" – for sex workers, who often get caught in the crossfire of modern slavery laws. No victims were found that night, but closure orders were brought against more than 20 premises. A six-month fight ensued to get them reopened, and the leaders of this battle were the women who had been interrogated as potential victims. “It was justified as an anti-trafficking operation, but the reality is that [police] evicted women working relatively safely from those premises, and they threatened migrant women with deportation," says Niki. "The whole thing was a farce."
Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic – who also acts as the National Police Chiefs' Council lead on sex work and prostitution – acknowledges that "these welfare visits [can] appear to some as a raid", but stresses that "the welfare and safety of the women involved is always the number one priority". He also quotes recently-issued police guidance, which claims that officers won’t criminalise women for selling sex or taking safety precautions like working together on premises – which usually gets them arrested under brothel-keeping laws.
According to Niki, sex workers aren’t seeing this in practice. She explains that "prostitute cautions" and arrests for street-based offences are still being handed out at high rates, and the sentiment that "welfare visits" are conducted for safety isn’t echoed by sex workers, who describe having documentation demanded and being grilled about who, and what, they know.
"We talk to women who are shaking or crying down the phone because they feel terrorised by police officers, who try to bang down their doors," continues Niki, describing these "visits" as nothing more than a decoy. "These aren’t 'welfare visits', they’re interrogations."
Police maintain that no numeric targets are in place, but they do stand to make serious cash from these visits. The Proceeds of Crime Act not only allows them to seize sex workers' earnings, it actively making it easier for them by reversing the burden of proof. A 2013 Freedom of Information (FOI) Request revealed that the seized cash is given to the Home Office, which then redistributes it to the police force without regulating how it's spent. The official line is that officers have no incentive to raid, but the truth is that the police force does stand to profit.
While food bank usage is at an all-time high, a rise in employment has been outpaced by the rise of in-work poverty and various funding cuts have strangled the country’s most vital services, pursestrings aren’t so tight when it comes to modern slavery spending. In fact, the budget increased by a whopping £22 million (from £39 million to £61 million) between 2017 and 2018, according to the 2018 Modern Slavery Report. This, on paper, is no bad thing: it builds pressure for officers to prove they take modern slavery seriously – but sex workers are the ones feeling the extra strain.
In both societal attitudes at large and the way legislation such as FOSTA-SESTA is written, there is a pervasive lack of distinction between a sex trafficking victim and a consenting sex worker. Some strands of feminism argue that sex work is always rape, a damaging and deeply outdated claim that posits all sex workers as victims in need of rescue, whether they want it or not (this theory can be traced back to the fracture of second-wave feminism in the 1970s) .
The Marriott Hotel came under fire in January for perpetuating this narrative through its anti-sex trafficking training scheme, which encouraged employees to profile all sex workers and surveil women travelling alone. Apps like Unseen, which allow users to report "potential victims of trafficking" with the mere tap of a touchscreen, similarly encourage profiling.
These initiatives might seem like nothing more than well-intentioned tools to help police officers identify vulnerable people, but lists of potential "signs of trafficking" – which range from poor language comprehension to visible tattoos – are easy to misinterpret. They’re also easy to weaponise: just ask the scores of Muslim schoolchildren stereotyped and profiled by the government’s similarly "well-intentioned" PREVENT terrorism strategy, which allows self-appointed moral crusaders to veil discrimination under the guise of concern.
We know that sex workers in particular risk being identified as victims, whether it’s true or not, but what’s happening to the genuine victims of modern slavery?
It’s hard to find answers to these questions in official statistics. The 2018 Modern Slavery Report tells us that 5,143 potential slavery victims were identified in 2017, but doesn’t tell us how many had their cases verified through the government’s National Referral Mechanism [NRM], which has been criticised in the past for failing those affected by trafficking.
In a nutshell, the NRM is a process triggered by a form completed by a "first responder" – this can include NGO representatives, but usually it’s a police officer or an employee of certain sections of the Home Office. This paperwork is then sent off to the National Crime Agency and, bizarrely, the Home Office. These bodies then decide whether the "potential victim" is genuine.
"There’s a deep conflict of interest at play here," says Matthew Leidecker, Campaigns Manager of NGO Detention Action, questioning the Home Office’s ability to balance its role as a "first responder" and its "role in maintaining detention and enforcing removals. Greater political priority is given to removal, so people displaying clear indicators of trafficking are seen as irregular migrants suitable for detention, rather than as potential victims of exploitation." A steady stream of news stories describing wrongful detentions support this claim.
Reforms were introduced last year to address other issues with the NRM, including – but not limited to – inaccurate victim identification, long waiting periods and a lack of support, especially for child victims, who were found to be slipping back into the hands of traffickers.
One woman with firsthand experience of these shortcomings is Susan*, who was trafficked into the UK 17 years ago. She had already experienced child sexual abuse and domestic slavery in Nigeria, but these horror stories repeated themselves when she was trafficked into the UK under the false pretence of a better life. Between heavy sobs over the phone, she gives detailed, disturbing accounts of the abuse she faced. Despite these years of suffering, Susan was told that she didn’t fit the criteria of a trafficking victim; worse still, the Home Office described having seen "several pieces of paperwork" indicating she didn’t need help, but she had only filled out the one NRM form.
Susan still doesn’t know what the forms cited by the Home Office are, nor why they were accessed and used against her without consent. Her appeal against the decision to refuse her asylum is also still ongoing, after numerous delays.
A search for help led Susan to the All African Women’s Group, an independent organisation of women asylum seekers and refugees. "We show victims that other women have fought these cases, and they’ve won," explains coordinator Crystel Amiss, who says this isn’t the first time she’s seen a trafficking victim fall into the government’s notorious "hostile environment" policies. "In some ways, 'hostile environment’ barely scratches the surface; this is a deliberate and considered mechanism put in place to absolutely refuse trafficking victims safety and protection," continues Crystel. "In this case, they used papers that [Susan] hadn’t even submitted."
Like Crystel, every activist I speak to is confident that the UK’s anti-trafficking laws are failing to identify genuine victims. Detention Action even outlines that some are being wrongly criminalised for the work they’re being forced into. This can lead to indefinite spells in detention centres, where conditions are often crueller than in prison.
Theresa May wasn’t wrong when she described modern slavery as "the great human rights violation of our time", but anti-trafficking laws aren’t doing anything to help victims. In fact, they’re victimising them further. Smugglers take advantage of harsh borders to enslave people who want to migrate safely, but when these victims are identified they fall into the "hostile environment", which can detain, criminalise or deport them without good reason.
Then there’s the NRM, which relies on the idea that paperwork alone can identify "genuine victims". This obviously isn’t true – especially not when a government body responsible for deportation is made responsible for the fate of vulnerable, undocumented migrants. But these facts get buried in moralistic media coverage, which often hones in specifically on sex trafficking. This language of "innocence" and "rescue" is then used to reinforce the narrative that all sex workers are victims, which enables police officers to raid brothels and seize earnings without question.
In other words, politics are overshadowing the needs of genuine trafficking victims, who risk being placed in detention centres like women’s facility Yarl’s Wood (which made headlines after guards were alleged to be raping and abusing detainees). Grassroots organisations are being left to pick up the pieces, but they’re unlikely to see any of the millions of pounds being allocated by the government to stamp out slavery. If anything, they’re forced to invest resources into challenging the official decisions, which leave trafficking victims even more desperate than they were before they were "rescued".