The best way to help trafficked women: abolish immigration controls
April 2, 2009
I’m Alive!!! But really, really busy with activism, and work, and PhD applications. It’s quite possible no one is actually going to read this, due to my extended absence. Also, I wish I could write something about the G20 protests, but I’m not there as I couldn’t get the time off work.
Rahila Gupta has an mostly very good article in today’s Comment Is Free arguing in favour of the European Convention on Human Trafficking, which would allow women up to 90 days of accommodation in which to gather evidence that they have been trafficked and apply for asylum.
Unfortunately, in the article, Gupta says that 80% of prostitutes in the UK are foreigners, and that most of them were trafficked, and condemns those who would rubbish those statistics.
Here’s the thing – it’s fully possible to “rubbish” that particular claim and still agree with every other word in Gupta’s article.
There were serious methodological issues with the survey that claimed to find that most foreign prostitutes were trafficked – among other things, the authors interpreted a willingness to have anal sex as proof that the woman in question was trafficked. Good methodology is important – as sociologists, are we interested in the truth, or in what “proof” would best serve our particular view of the world?
That being said, of course women who are trafficked should be allowed to stay in the UK. And of course, as Ms Gupta says, a lot of women in sex work are not there by a full and free choice but because the situations in which they find themselves provide them with no better option. And of course we have to provide exit strategies for anyone who wants out of the sex industry.
I feel, however, that the government approach to trafficking, which includes the acceptance of the statistics quoted above, actually makes migrant women, trafficked or not, more vulnerable to being exploited and forced into the sex industry. The government defines trafficking very narrowly – and any organisation, like the Poppy Project that requires government funding must adopt this definition. This definition would continue even if women are given 90 days to decide if they want to contact the police. Women who knowingly came to the UK illegally and were coerced into sex work, or became prostitutes willingly but were deceived about the hours, or became sex workers later because no other jobs were forthcoming given their lack of papers – none of these women would necessarily qualify for government assistance.
Furthermore, the government uses the spectre of supposedly widespread trafficking to justify crackdown in immigration and more authoritarian border controls – the new concentration camp for migrants being built in Calais, for example, has been portrayed by the government as necessary to prevent human trafficking.
Finally, let us not forget our sisters (and brothers) in other industries, where they are viciously exploited and subject to sexual violence. While the government pretends to care about trafficked sex workers, Transport For London is having many of the tube cleaner union activists deported, in retaliation for their union activism. Many of these women have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape on the job – but somehow, this sexual violence is of no concern to the government.
One of the many reasons I have undying respect for Rahila Gupta, even where I disagree with her, is that she knows this and incorporates it into her analysis of the situation of migrant sex workers. In her book Enslaved, Ms Gupta profiles not only a sex worker, but also a domestic worker, a women in an arranged marriage, a (male) construction worker and an asylum-seeker. She makes it clear that non-status women in any industry are very vulnerable to sexual violence. She also argues that the only way to eradicate this exploitation and violence is by eliminating all immigration controls.
In the short-term, advocating for the Convention may be the best way forward, though it is crucial that feminists engage very warily with the government, and recognise the shortcomings of this law.
However, in the long-term, only the abolition of immigration controls, and the establishment of a society where no one is forced to become a sex worker / prostitute to fend off starvation, will end human trafficking.
While I may disagree with Ms Gupta’s acceptance of the quoted statistic, I fully support her goal of abolishing immigration controls. And I think this is very important to emphasize – that a lot of people who “rubbish” those stats still agree with most of what Ms Gupta says are still vehemently opposed to trafficking and to the exploitation and abuse of any migrant workers, regardless of whether they were trafficked or not, and believe strongly in providing all sex workers / prostitutes with exit strategies. Hopefully, we can build a movement from these common goals and agree to disagree on peripheral issues.