IN WHOSE NAME? Migration and Trafficking in the UK Sex Industry: delivering social interventions between myths and reality

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The relationship between migration, the sex industry and exploitation is a highly topical issue and one of concern for policymakers, the government, the third sector and the general public alike in the UK. There is a perception that commercial sex is connected to international organised crime and irregular immigration raising social alarms about the extent of trafficking within the UK sex industry. This is magnified in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics by speculation of an increase in trafficking to satisfy the demand for cheap sex supposedly generated by large sporting events, contrary to existing evidence (GAATW 2009). In recent years, estimates of the size of the sex industry and the number of migrant sex workers in the UK have frequently been manipulated by political actors and anti-sex work lobbyists into a moral panic situation in which the majority of migrant sex workers are presented as trafficked (Cusick et al. 2009; Davies 2009). In the process, the real experiences and vulnerability of migrant sex workers are obscured for the political and fundraising purposes of different social actors (Carline 2010). Most importantly, the real livelihoods of migrants working in the sex industry, most of who are
not trafficked, are disrupted and their rights and vulnerabilities remain
ignored and unattended.
Contrary to prevailing public perceptions, a minority of migrant sex workers are coerced and exploited in the sex industry (ACPO 2010; Mai 2009, Platt et al. 2011). The current public outcry about the extent of trafficking in the UK sex industry coincides with the adoption of a criminalising and law enforcement approach towards sex work, through the introduction of the Policing and Crime Act (2009), which impacted very negatively on the lives and rights of migrants working in the sex industry (x:talk 2010). Recent research findings suggest that a small minority of migrants working in the sex industry feel coerced and exploited and they show that criminalisation and migration law enforcement-based approaches towards sex work increase both migrant and non-migrant sex workers’ risk of physical and sexual violence in London (Platt et al. 2011). In many cases, anti-trafficking initiatives resulted in a number of arrests, convictions and deportations of sex workers for prostitution and immigration crimes (x:talk 2010).


The criminalisation and law enforcement approach adopted by antitrafficking initiatives undermines their main aim because it has resulted in a relatively low number of convictions for trafficking as well as a failure to adequately identify and support victims of trafficking (Arocha 2011). The new coalition government has recently outlined strategies to fight trafficking and address prostitution which are even more focused on a criminalisation and law enforcement approach (Home Office 2011).


Therefore, it is topical that the findings of recent and relevant research are communicated effectively and in a timely way to policymakers, the third sector and the general. This is particularly urgent, given the attention that the issue of trafficking has received in the run up to the 2012 Olympics, coinciding with an intensification of anti-trafficking interventions in the London Olympic boroughs and beyond. The aim of the ‘In Whose Name? Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking’ event is to bring the evidence gathered by the ESRC funded ‘Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry’ research project as well as other recent and relevant research findings (Platt et al. 2011; xtalk 2010) to the centre of current debates and policymaking on trafficking and the sex industry.

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