Pimp my profile: trafficking figures debate missing the point

Yesterday’s Association of Chief Police Officers report into so-called “off-street' prostitution threw up a new – and already much-discussed – figure of 2,600 women and girls trafficked into forced prostitution in England and Wales.

The whole utterly disgusting business of how women are tricked and brutalised into sexual slavery by modern-day slavemaster-pimps is now quite well known, not least because Amnesty and several other excellent campaign organisations have raised its profile in the last 10 years or so.

The last government took notice. It signed a new Europe-wide convention and set up new procedures for identifying and helping trafficked people (see my recent post on how these efforts are welcome but nevertheless seriously flawed in their application).

But some critics of anti-trafficking efforts come at things from a different angle. They say the scale has been exaggerated by campaign organisations. OK, goes the argument, these women endure horrendous suffering but it’s only a handful, not the thousands that have been talked about.

The 2,600 figure plays into this. Sort if. Being assured that there are “less” trafficked women than previously thought – something around 3,000 and not 5,000 or higher – might look semi-reassuring, but is it? No, and here are three reasons why:

(1): If the ACPO figures are accurate they’re still deeply troubling. Should we be relaxed about the fact that upwards of 2,500 women have been forced into prostitution in England and Wales? (Presumably it’s over 3,000 if you factor in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Shouldn’t we instead be alarmed, not least because the police aren’t catching many traffickers? In the nine months to January 2010 only 36 people individuals had trafficking offences brought to court, a drop in the ocean when it come to “cracking down on the gangs”.

(2): If the new figures are themselves faulty – as some critics are saying – it’s likely to be because they significantly underestimate the problem. The ACPO study only looked at brothels in seven regions of England and Wales and then extrapolated data for the whole area. As Amnesty points out, ACPO’s failure to find many people trafficked from African countries is especially dubious, as experts know women from countries like Nigeria are regularly forced into the sex industry in Britain.

(3): The government’s own approach is contributing to a misleading downward pressure on the official numbers. UK Border Agency staff regularly categorise trafficking victims as “illegal immigrants”. Net result? Fewer women getting recognised as trafficking victims, and fewer women even going to the authorities if they manage to escape their tormentors.

The ACPO research comes from something called “Project Acumen”, but you have to wonder whether the police have actually got the acumen to quantify the scale of this problem. Even a senior police officer has dismissed the new findings as “amateurish, even by police research standards”. (Ouch).  

Maybe if the Metropolitan police hadn’t closed down its own highly regarded trafficking unit they might have produced a better report. As it is, we should respond to the claim that the figures are “pimped” with the question: well what’s the right number of sex slaves in Britain? And why aren’t we catching more criminals and helping more victims? 

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