5 November 2007. A World to Win News Service. Trafalgar Square, in the heart of tourist London, a monument to the British Empire visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year, was different this last September. For several weeks it was the site of an art installation exposing the ugly side of London and the UK, and of today’s world, called The journey. That journey could start from many places – South-East Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, for instance. Its destination could well be the heart of London or other major European cities, as it was the case for Elena, Corina, Nina and many hundreds of thousands of other young women who made this journey in hope of a better life, only to end up in sex slavery.
Set up in the northern section of Trafalgar Square, The journey took visitors through a train-like series of seven wagons (shipping containers covered with graffiti advertising “Fresh hot flesh!” on the outside), each curated by a different artist. Its purpose was to give visitors an opportunity to see and think about what enslaved young women go through.
The most shocking part was the wagon set up like a small room where these women are supposed to “work” and “live”. A dirty bed whose centre moves up and down first caught the eye. The room was strewn with dirty red bed sheets and used and unused condoms. Dirty tissues could be seen here and there. The stabbing bright red light let us know that this is a place of pain. But that’s not all. The room’s humidity and the increasingly intolerable smells made visitors eager to move on to the next wagon.
There pictures and texts on the walls told stories. Elena herself narrated her story over head sets: how she was sold to traffickers for £500 in Lithuania, and when she got to UK had to serve up to 30 clients a day. Her story went on, but although she had more to say, people were waiting in the room behind us. We had to keep going.
Finally we got to a room where the walls and even ceiling were filled with posters with texts of interviews. We read what they said and what was said to them by Home Office officials when some of these women dared to seek legal status to stay in the UK. There were pages of texts, but in essence they were all similar. The Home Office officials refuse to believe what these women are saying. In this, the Home Office is doing just what the traffickers need them to do. For example, the officers refuse to accept that these women were initiated into prostitution by being raped. They refuse to accept that they were forced or tricked into leaving their hometown, and that if they return they will be in danger. This pattern goes on and on.
The work and presence of Academy Award-winning actor Emma Thompson, well known sculptor Anish Kapour and Sandy Powell, an Academy Award-winner designer, certainly contributed to the publicity that attracted a broad number of people to visit The journey.
It was organised by the Helen Bamber Foundation, which assists people who have been tortured. Thompson, who works with this foundation, said in an interview, “Our engagement with people who have suffered is full of riches… I’m not really interested in people who haven’t suffered much.” (Guardian 3 October)
A Bamber Foundation leaflet explains, “Every year thousands of young women are lured to the UK and brutally coerced into a life of sexual exploitation. Bought and sold, they are not visibly branded or shackled but trapped in local massage parlours and behind the respectable net curtains of suburbia, they are forced to service punter after punter.”
Then the leaflet asserts, “By changing government policy, we can transform a degrading journey into one of hope and possibility.” The widely publicized visits to the exhibition by UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Culture Secretary James Purnell may have given hope to the foundation’s activists that this could really happen. Further, on 1 October the authorities launched an operation codenamed Pentameter 2, a crackdown on brothels and sex traffickers involving, for the first time, all police forces throughout Britain and Ireland. Three days later, they announced that three women had been rescued.
In fact this operation followed a similar four-month effort last year, after which 134 people were charged. But only 90 women and girls were freed from 500 brothels, massage parlours, homes and other premises and it is not clear what happened to them.
Although Smith correctly labelled sex trafficking a “modern-day form of slavery”, she said she could not give an across-the-board guarantee that those rescued would not face deportation as illegal migrants. On the contrary, she said, if these women were protected from deportation, that “would be likely to act more generally as a pull factor.” (Guardian 4 October 2007)
Was this exhibition wasted on her? Does she really think what male society has always taught – that prostitution is a “lifestyle choice”? Can she really believe that if sex slaves aren’t punished for going to the authorities, this will attract more women to become sex slaves?
Whatever Smith’s intentions may be, she is sending a clear message: if trafficked women come out of hiding, they will be sorry. And obviously she is also sending a clear message to traffickers that they can count on the UK government to threaten these women into carrying on their “work”.
Most youth and teenage girls are trafficked by gangs or individual entrepreneurs. They are promised a good job, but once across the border they are auctioned and sold to their next owner. By now they “owe” a huge amount of money – sometimes £20,000 – for the journey. They will be made to work off that debt by servicing 30 to 40 clients a day, or more, seven days a week. That means for years the entire income will go to pay their debts to traffickers and the “rent” to the brothel owner. If they don’t attract enough clients, not only will they be harshly treated and beaten, they won’t be able to pay back their “debts”.
Most of them can’t go home. They are prisoners, not only of four walls, but of a no-way-out situation. They have been threatened with torture and death if they try to escape. They have been told – and they know that only too often it’s true – that if they get away, their family, their sister or parents back home, will have to pay. At any rate, if she returns home, what will become of a young woman who has been a prostitute?
Consider the story of Nita, an Albanian woman kidnapped and sold into slavery by Serbian soldiers. After six years of forced prostitution, a man who knew her husband helps her escape. Almost miraculously, she finds her husband in London. But when he sees the application for asylum that the British Foreign office has made her fill out, he learns what she was doing while they were apart, and abandons her, pregnant with their second child. “Nita is now 29. Her father, sister and baby daughter, last seen on that terrible winter night when she was taken away and raped, are almost certainly dead. If she is sent home, the few people who might remember her in Pristina would know what happened to her. ‘I do not think,’ she says, ‘that anyone would want me back.’ The Albanian and Italian traffickers would certainly remember her. With little education, no family and no money, she assumes that in order to provide for her new baby, she would have little choice but to go on the streets. She hopes for a boy. ‘If it’s a girl, I shall always be frightened that she might have the same life that I have had.’” (“Women and children for sale,” Caroline Moorehead, New York Review of Books, 15 October 2007)
The story of Jenna, 20 years old, from Romania – who said she was “lucky” enough to be bought by a customer and freed – is typical of thousands more, and sheds light on what the establishment does when these women seek official help: “I was trafficked through France and smuggled into the UK. Two men met me and other women in London and we were all taken to a flat… The men raped and threatened me. I was not allowed out by myself or to speak to anyone outside the flat… The men told me I owed them lots of money and would have to work to pay it back. I worked in some brothels and then a man ‘bought’ me and freed me… but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute the trafficking case… a rape case can only go ahead if the men return to the UK, but they have gone back to my town in Romania, so I cannot go home.” (Guardian, 11 February 2005)
The above-quoted New York Review of Books article also recounts the story of a young Rwandan woman named Mary, who after several years of abuse and slavery in London, managed to run away. Now she has AIDS. She can’t go home because the security forces there abused her too, and would do it again. Her family was killed in the ethnic cleansing. Now she is on run from the UK police and immigration officers, since her asylum application was rejected. She has gone underground, and has a job paid in cash. In order not to draw attention, she makes no friends, talks to no one and lives alone. “I live from day to day. What I really feel now is that I should have died with my family in the genocide. I no longer know what to hope for. But if they come for me, I will cut my throat.”
If these women try to escape, all of society and its laws, just as much in the democratic West as anywhere else, stands against them. Continued slavery – or arrest, deportation and then maybe slavery again: this is what they face at the hands of the traffickers and their accomplices, the parliaments, governments, bureaucrats and police. One fact speaks loudly: The UN Convention Against Transnational Crime passed in 2000 is completely silent about helping the victims.
The excuse, for this, in the Western countries, is that policies against sex trafficking are intertwined with the issue of immigration.
Western anti-immigrant laws are a source of legal oppression for ordinary immigrants who have left their country for various reasons, usually because the wars encouraged by the Western powers in their countries or the economic rape of their countries by these same powers have made life in their homelands impossible. The result is not to end immigration, but to make immigrants “illegal” – a source of downtrodden, cheap labour. But the suffering of these women is multiplied further.
When governments pass anti-immigration laws, they put indirect (and sometimes direct) pressure on these women and give ground to their captors to apply more control over them and exploit and abuse them even more harshly. As the police operations Pentameter 1 and Pentameter 2 show, whenever these governments decide to “help” the women in sex-slavery, they crack down on a few brothels and pick up women who most likely are going to be deported. In the final analysis, the main effect is to put more pressure on the victims, who find themselves with even less hope of any acceptable way out of their situation and become more deeply enslaved to their owners.
Speaking of Pentameter 2, Aiden McQuade, of Anti-Slavery International, said that “most people trafficked into Britain had been left with illegal immigration status by the traffickers as a means of control: ‘It is too often apparent that irregular status should be regarded as an indicator of forced labour rather than taken at face value.’” (Guardian, 3 October 2007)
The British Home Office – like its fellow pimps-in-power in other countries – would like to hide the extent of sex slavery in the UK. In the recent Pentameter 2 operation, the authorities widely publicised the estimate that in the UK some 4,000 trafficked women and men have been forced into prostitution. But there are reasons to believe that this figure is far below the real numbers. A report published by the Observer (18 April 2004) says that there are 80,000 women working as prostitutes in the UK. Approximately 80% of the 8,000 prostitutes who work in London’s hundreds of brothels, saunas, and escort agencies are said to be foreign nationals, the vast majority from Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. The same report indicates that “about 600,000 people are illegally brought into the EU each year, the vast majority of them for sexual exploitation”.
When a leading UK government official responds to The journey by warning that humane treatment for trafficked women would be a “pull factor”, the heartless character of official policies and governmental measures in this regard could not be clearer. Yet at the same time, prostitution and human trafficking are deeply rooted in the functioning of the system as a whole. The undisputed rule of profit that is the essence of our capitalist times, and the oppression of women that arose long before capitalism and which capitalism can only perpetuate, intersect in the turning of women’s bodies into commodities to be bought and sold, the kind of exchange promoted a thousand times a second in the world of legal commodities where “sexy” and “buy me”’ are synonymous.
Even more, the functioning of capitalism and imperialism has given rise to global prostitution on an unprecedented scale. The intensification of globalisation in the last two decades has tremendously escalated the international trafficking of women and children, on a scale unseen before the 1990s.
“Officials at the International Labour Organization say only that they believe that between 700,000 and two million women and children are trafficked across an international border somewhere in the world every year, feeding an industry with profits estimated at somewhere between $12 billion and $17 billion per year. According to the United Nations there are currently 127 ‘source countries’ that provide large numbers of prostitutes, mainly in Asia and Eastern Europe, and 137 ‘destination countries.’” (NYRB, 15 October 2007)
This, in some ways, is a new phenomenon, not just “the world’s oldest profession”. It is yet another grotesque manifestation of the increasing lopsidedness of the world, the accumulation of wealth at one pole and the accumulation of misery at the other – where the globalized capitalist economy, like a whirlpool, sucks in billions of people and pulls them under.
(The journey will travel to other cities in the UK and, the organizers say, “hopefully Eastern Europe”. See www.the-journey.co.uk. Other videos on youtube.com)
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