Sonny Leong (pictured) Chair of Chinese for Labour has kindly invited me to write an article on women and trafficking for the September issue of The Orient, Chinese for Labour’s magazine. Here it is:
Whilst I am a strong supporter of the Olympics, and the opportunities it is offering the vibrant capital that I call home, I am deeply concerned that the 2012 Games will spark a steep rise in the capital’s sex trade. Over 30,000 construction workers are set to work on the site over the next three years, and when added together with spectators and athletes, this could a fuel a sex-trade time bomb.
During the Athens Games, sex trafficking almost doubled and there were reports of sex attacks in the athletes’ village in Sydney in 2000. In the UK, a small increase in the number of trafficked women working in the five Olympic host boroughs was recently reported by the BBC. Fortunately it seems that the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) has made an about turn on previous statements and now shares these concerns. A report published by the MPA in mid-July this year warned that an increase in prostitution and trafficking linked to the Games could put women at risk.
Previously, when I have approached the police and London borough councils on these issues, they have backed away from making any link between sex crimes and sporting events. Even when I used figures showing dramatic increases in the trafficking of women ahead of the Swiss Euro 2008, Liberal Democrat Councillor Terry Stacy, Islington council’s executive member for community safety, said:
“Levels of prostitution in Islington have significantly fallen in the last two years and the area around King’s Cross has improved. But we know there is still work to be done.”
Her refusal to acknowledge any extra burden on councils in tackling trafficking and prostitution in the lead up to and duration of the Games, shows just how out of touch most councillors are with this problem.
Where large groups of men have congregated together away from home, there has always tended to be an increase in prostitution. History is laden with evidence to verify this correlation: from wars in Roman times, and the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam War, to stag parties and testosterone-driven companies’ business trips. The question is why should large sporting events be any different? The psycho-social reasons why men pay for sex; a strange environment; hyper-masculine environment; being inebriated and overseas: these all apply to sporting events. Especially football. At a Demand Change! event, hosted by anti-prostitution groups OBJECT! and Eaves Housing, Professor Roger Matthews from London South Bank University spoke of his findings that the vast majority of prostitution business in this country is from men “experimenting” and “trying it out just the one time”. He found that business for prostitutes from regular users makes up just 10 per cent of the UK’s sex trade.
Such findings show that the atmosphere created by one off events, such as the Olympics, are highly conducive to a rise in “experimental” behaviour. Traffickers know that amidst the hubbub and excitement of the Games there will be an increase in demand for sexual services and they will do all they can to meet this demand. For this reason, London borough councils and the police must show absolutely no tolerance towards prostitution within London. This is the only chance the authorities have of lowering the market for trafficked women and preventing traffickers from establishing themselves in the capital ahead of the Games. But unfortunately the police are just not getting this.
At the beginning of this year The Evening Standard reported that Commander Allan Gibson, of the Metropolitan Police force, told a Commons’ Home Affairs Committee that his force knew rapidly when sex was being sold and could devote “a lot more” of its resources to tackling the problem, but chose not to do so. According to the paper, Mr Gibson, the officer in charge of the force’s human trafficking unit, said the Met insisted it is determined to stamp out serious criminality connected to brothels, such as people-trafficking. But this entirely misses the point. A green light to prostitution is a green light to trafficking; where prostitution has been legalised, such as in Germany and the Netherlands, trafficking has risen exponentially to meet the demand. As explained by Gunilla Ekberg, from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) at the same OBJECT! meeting this summer,
“Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have concluded that they have made a gigantic mistake. They both agree that the way to go is to criminalise the demand.”
We have had some pretty tense debates around prostitution and trafficking in the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee, even amongst the Socialist group, where we can usually agree! The European Parliament cannot legislate on selling sex, hence why member states’ legislation on this issue varies so widely.
One statement we all stand behind is The European action plan to fight trafficking of women (2005), and all of us in the Socialist group are fighting for this to be given more priority by our member states. This plan involves implementing national and international hotlines for victims of trafficking across member states and ensuring that victims of trafficking are supported, instead of being immediately sent back to their country of origin by authorities. Other than Euro politicians supporting European recommendations to tackle trafficking, it is largely up to the UK Parliament, and at the moment the Lords, to take a stand on the commercial sexual exploitation of women and to deal with its far-reaching human rights implications. This Bill is a real opportunity to make progress on reducing exploitation of women by addressing the demand factor. Across Europe, this has proven to be the only way to put an end to trafficking. In Sweden, where paying or offering to pay for sexual services, on or off the street, is a criminal offence, instances of trafficking are the lowest in Europe. A law such as this is urgently needed in the UK, but unfortunately the government has been reluctant to do it as surveys have shown that public attitudes are against such legislation. So until attitudes change, which the Demand Change! Campaign is fighting to do, the Policing and Crime Bill’s first tentative steps towards punishing any person who buys sex from a trafficked person, whether they do it knowingly or not, is the best hope that we have got.
I urge you to support this Bill in whatever way you can and keep track, or get involved in the Demand Change! Campaign here http://www.demandchange.org.uk/