Sex trafficking is human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This includes sexual slavery, where victims are forced to give sexual services to clients. This often happens in a coercive environment, or results from dependency on the sex trafficker. Sex trafficking is often confused with human trafficking: sex trafficking does not always involve victims being moved across state borders, whereas human trafficking always involves victims of forced labour being transported illegally between countries.
A report by the International Labour Organisation published in 2017 estimated that out of the 24.9 million people who are forced labour victims, 4.8 million (19%) are trapped in forced sexual exploitation. The report also revealed that women and girls are disproportionately the victims, with women comprising 99% of those in the commercial sex industry, and 58% of forced labour victims across all sectors. Children comprise more than a fifth of victims of commercial sexual exploitation. According to the anti-slavery organisation Polaris, LGBTQ people are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation in the US.
Sex trafficking is a lucrative business for those involved. In 2012, the International Labour Organisation estimated that the profits from forced sexual exploitation were as high as $99 billion.
While many victims of sexual exploitation are migrant victims of forced labour, many victims are victimised within their home countries. Many victims of sex trafficking will never leave the country they were born in, and the industry exists in developed nations in the West, as well as developing nations. In the US in 2019, 13 women in the US filed a lawsuit against major hotel chains from four US states, stating they were implicated in forced sexual exploitation. Their lawyers claim that their case demonstrates failures across the hospitality sector to prevent sex trafficking, alleging that women and children were held captive, abused and were sold for sex in hotel rooms across the country.
To tackle the problem of domestic modern slavery, the UK parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. The act aimed to consolidate previous anti-slavery legislation. Some human rights organisations, such as Liberty, claim the legislation has shortcomings, including a failure to legislate against “tied visas”. In the UK, migrant workers are not allowed to leave their jobs and find employment elsewhere if they entered the country on a tied visa, effectively making them dependent on their employer. This system has been compared to the Kefala system of migrant labour sponsorship that operates in the Gulf states in the Middle East. The Kefala system has been compared to slavery: read our Lit explainer on the topic here.
The 2015 Act created an independent anti-slavery commissioner. The inaugural commissioner Kevin Hyland resigned his position in 2017, stating that many of his recommendations had not been implemented. He cited a lack of resources as a primary reason for this. He commented at the time:
“There needs to be a wholesale reordering of how we tackle it [modern slavery]…The priority should be looking at the evidence. We need to carefully examine what the approach has been with modern day slavery to make sure that opportunities haven’t been missed, and to assess what is in place to stop this happening again.”
In particular, he expressed frustration that the recommendations of a report he published in 2015 on the trafficking of Vietnamese nationals had not been implemented. He publicly criticised UK police forces for failing to take action on the mounting evidence of enslaved Vietnamese teenagers being trafficked into the UK. The report stated that, according to National Crime Agency data, sexual exploitation is the second largest sector of modern slavery experienced by Vietnamese victims of human trafficking.
The report noted that stakeholders in Vietnam did recognise that sexual exploitation of Vietnamese nationals was an issue in countries other than the UK, and took the view that it was not common in the UK as the majority of Vietnamese UK human trafficking victims are put to work on cannabis farms. This view was reinforced by senior police officers in the UK interviewed for the report. They were of the opinion that sexual exploitation was taking place among Vietnamese trafficking victims, but that it was more common among Albanian, Roma and Romanian communities.
Despite the alleged lack of resources, the UK’s National Crime Agency has successfully apprehended UK-based human trafficking gangs. In November 2019, UK police arrested seventeen people for human trafficking, as part of a joint operation by British and Romanian police. The raids, in London, led to the rescue of twenty nine women, all aged between 20 and 40. Of those detained,who were aged 17 to 50, were held on suspicion of modern slavery, class A drug offences, firearm offences and on suspicion of controlling prostitution.
The current anti-slavery commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, has expressed concern about the impact COVID-19 will have on victims of slavery or of forced sexual exploitation. Writing to the Home Office, she expressed concerns that delays in exiting people from asylum seekers’ accommodation would have an impact on victims of human trafficking who may be unable to buy sufficient food or cleaning items for the full 14 days recommended by the government if a person develops COVID-19 symptoms.
To tackle sexual slavery in the UK, some campaigners have proposed the “Nordic Model” of prostitution, so named as it was first enacted in multiple Scandinavian countries. The approach has since been adopted in Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland, and Israel. The Nordic Model proposes decriminalisation of those who are prostituted, to provide security to those who blow the whistle on their employers, and to provide victims with an exit strategy, as many jobs require a person not have a criminal record. It also proposes strengthening trafficking legislation, provisions for housing and employment support so that victims are not financially dependent on their pimp or employer, and information campaigns and training for police officers, schools, NHS workers, and other frontline staff that come into contact with victims of sex trafficking. Opinion on the restriction and suggested legality of prostitution is a controversial subject, but more information on the Nordic Model can be found here.