SPOTLIGHT: Lifting the lid on ‘Project Acumen’
AS MANY readers will know by now, the UK’s top cops have unveiled their latest estimate of ‘sex-slave women’ in England and Wales. It’s either 2,600 or 12,000 depending which newspaper you read.
Their report, entitled Setting the Record, can be downloaded as a PDF here, and I encourage you to do so because it’s already clear that the UK media is coming up with its usual melodramatic nonsense. It takes a while to plod through the whole report, so rushed journos don’t. They grab the press release, might (if you’re lucky) browse the executive summary, flip through for a few stats they can stitch in out of context, and add in the most sensational quotes they can find.
Sex Trafficking: Exploding the myths
The report is the work of “Project Acumen” from the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is six months late. Parliament was told last year that it was to cover both sex trafficking and trafficking for forced labour, but it only does the former. See the speeches of Lord Bach here.
- It estimates 2,578 ‘trafficked’ women in the sex industry in England and Wales. But the two national Pentameter combined operations by all 55 UK police forces, together lasting well over a year, found barely 250 – less than a tenth of that number – across the whole UK, including Scotland and Ireland.
- Project Acumen’s findings are based on interviews with just 210 migrant sex workers at 142 premises in England and Wales. How these premises were selected is unclear. The first Pentameter, on the other hand, visited 515 premises and the second 822
- Besides the 210, a further 44 UK sex workers were interviewed at the 142 premises. None was trafficked or considered “vulnerable”
- NONE of the 210 migrants had been kidnapped, imprisoned or subjected to surveillance
- NONE were established as sold
- ONLY ONE had been subjected to violence, and NONE had been threatened with violence
- At least 202 had known when recruited they would be expected to work as prostitutes. Of the remaining eight, some may have been misled about their location rather than the work
- Among the 210, two dozen were deemed trafficked – 19 Asians and five Eastern Europeans
- In five cases, there had been threats of, or real, violence to a migrant sex workers’ family
- One in ten of the women were ‘debt-bonded’ – owing money to those who had brought them to the UK for transport etc and sometimes other debts, possibly owed by their families
- NONE suffered “threats of denunciation to the authorities.”
- NONE had been given false information about migration, or about the law or attitude of the authorities.
All interviews were carried out by ‘SCD9’, the Met’s new Human Exploitation and Organised Crime unit, created on April 1 in response to much protest at the closure of the Met’s specialist Human Trafficking unit.
Project Acumen’s results from the 210 migrant sex workers were then extrapolated to apply to all migrant ‘indoor’ sex workers in England and Wales, which the report estimates at 17,000 out of a total 30,000 indoor sex workers in 6,000 businesses. ‘Legal’ sex workers, such as independent escorts, were excluded from the figures. Of the 2,578 estimated trafficked, 2,199 (85%) are Asian, mostly Chinese. The remaining 379 are estimated trafficked from Eastern Europe.
A second, much larger, category of “vulnerable” was created in the Project Acumen report, numbering 9,200. Much of the media, eg the Telegraph, has lumped these in with the trafficked in order to create a Nice Big Number of 12,000 ‘sex slaves’. However, Setting the Record says of these (page 21, emphasis mine):
…most are likely to fall short of the trafficking threshold. Approximately 3,700 of them are from Asia; there may be significant cultural factors which prevent them from exiting prostitution or seeking help, but they tend to have day-to-day control over their activities and do not consider themselves to be debt-bonded. A further estimated 4,100 are from Eastern Europe; although many are legally entitled to live and work in the UK, they tend to speak little English and because they live and work in areas they are unfamiliar with they are overly reliant on their controllers. Most made a conscious decision to become involved in prostitution, albeit with limited alternatives, and the financial rewards on offer are considered to be a significant pull factor for these individuals. Additionally, there are around 1,000 vulnerable women from South America and 400 from Africa involved in prostitution, who are highly unlikely to be legally entitled to live and work in the country so operate outside normal societal support networks and systems.
So this ”vulnerable” category seems to have been largely created by the language barrier and fear of the dreaded Border Agency, with no mention of any of the third-party coercion or deception inherent in trafficking.
It is by ploughing through the minutia in the appendices, though, that the most interesting results emerge, especially Appendix 8. This is a list of the 66 “operational indicators” of trafficking the interviewers were looking for to determine whether someone was trafficked, and shows how many of the 210 interviewees exhibited each.
How did Project Acumen Determine Trafficked Women?
What is “trafficked“? What criteria, precisely, does one have to meet to merit the title “sex slave” in contemporary society? Ask me this question last week, before the arrival of Project Acumen’s report, and (if I wasn’t too busy) I would have dug out Article 3 of the Palermo Protocol and recited:
If you are…
Recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received,
…by means of (applying to adults only)…
the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person
…in order to exploit you (adults or children) for…
prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs
….then you’re trafficked. Because that’s what the protocol says. Now it doesn’t say that in Westminster law because the Home Office is full of highly paid assholes living off the taxpayer who haven’t learnt to cut and paste yet, but that’s another story well covered in past posts, so let‘s not digress.
Coercion, abduction, fraud and deception are all clear concepts. They may be difficult to prove, but it’s pretty obvious what they actually are. The same could be said for buying and selling people. The “abuse of power or a position of vulnerability,” on the other hand, is a pretty ill-defined loose term, unless, perhaps, we’re talking about exploiting someone with learning difficulties. “Exploit” can also be very tricky to nail down.
Anyway, after the ink dried on the Palermo Protocol, various august but confused bodies went away, scratched their heads, and tried to work out how to put it into practice. Prominent among these was the International Labour Organisation (ILO, not to be confused with the ELO, which is an old rock band).
The ILO came up with four systems, one of which was dedicated to identifying trafficked adult sex workers. It is this system that Project Acumen used. The system used by the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Border Agency is different but, we are told, similar.
The ILO system has six things called “dimensions of trafficking,” along with various “indicators” (66 in all), some of which are supposedly indicators of one “dimension of trafficking” and some of which are indicators of several. Project Acumen counted as “trafficked” any migrant sex worker exhibiting four or more of these “dimensions of trafficking.” However, to qualify as “vulnerable,” sex workers only had to exhibit a single “dimension of trafficking.”
The ILO’s six “dimensions of trafficking” are:
- Recruitment by abuse of vulnerability
- Deceptive recruitment
- Coercive recruitment
- Abuse of vulnerability at destination
- Exploitative conditions of work, and
- Coercion at destination
Its 66 “indicators” are each categorised as strong, medium or weak. A sex worker is said to exhibit a “dimension” of trafficking if they have at least:
- two ‘indicators’ of the dimension concerned, including at least one ‘strong’ indicator; or
- three ‘medium’ indicators; or
- two ‘medium’ and one ‘weak’ indicator
Each individual, with her various “dimensions of trafficking,“ was then looked at to see if, hypothetically, action, means and purpose could be strung together to amount to a possible human trafficking case. Now, looking at the indicators, it doesn’t take much to exhibit a “dimension of trafficking.” Nearly all the 66 indicators, incidentally, are ‘medium,’ and I’ll indicate ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ ones when I come to them.
(1) The Exploitative Conditions of Work (ECW) Dimension
Because they were sex workers in brothels, the Project Acumen team automatically accorded all 210 migrants two medium indicators (‘hazardous work’ and ‘no respect of labour laws and contract’) towards the three needed for the “Exploitative Conditions of Work” (ECW) dimension.
This, however, begs a question. If the ILO regarded all sex workers as engaging in ‘hazardous work’, why is it listed as an indicator at all, and why doesn’t it just reduce the barrier for the ECW dimension by one indicator? Logically, the ILO must have some perception of sex work that isn’t hazardous for it to be listed. Not so our SCD9 team from the Met, however.
As “exploitation” is crucial to all trafficking, this is crucial. Sex workers may be, and no doubt are, victims of all manner of crimes, but if they cannot be demonstrated to be exploited at the end of the day, then the case for branding them “human trafficking victims” is very much weaker.
What is hazardous? Fire fighting? Soldiery in the front line of a war? Lion-taming? Maybe taking part in clinical trials? Certainly sex work can be hazardous in some situations - street sex workers are notoriously vulnerable to violent maniacs, and sexually transmitted infections are certainly hazardous. However, Project Acumen was not investigating street sex workers, ‘safe sex’ policies are the rule rather than the exception in the industry, and many brothels have panic alarms should things go awry.
Furthermore, sleepy little brothels tucked away in various locations in England and Wales may be a lot less hazardous than those the Met’s Human Exploitation and Organised Crime unit normally finds itself dealing with in central London. Arguably the interviewers’ normal work is more hazardous than the interviewees’.
Anyway, the presumption of these two indicators under this heading left our 210 migrant women just needing that key third indicator – any strength would do – for their ECW Dimension of Trafficking certificates, and thus to be declared “Vulnerable.” This, a whopping 132 of them managed through having “no social protection,” ie no health insurance, pension rights, etc. In other words, they weren’t paying their stamp, and neither was anyone else.
Astute readers will by now realise that these “exploitative conditions of work” are largely the product of the state that successive governments have left the UK law in.
Regardless of how luxurious, or otherwise, their brothel was; how generous, or otherwise, their share of the proceeds; and how little, or otherwise, they were expected to do, all 132 were thus accorded the Exploitative Conditions of Work trafficking dimension, and were thus declared “Vulnerable” by Project Acumen.
Remaining indicators of “exploitative conditions of work” were exhibited by only single figures of migrants. Could this be because the bulk had already ticked all boxes necessary for this dimension? Only nine of the 210 are recorded as having “very bad working conditions“; half a dozen received “low or no salary”; five had “bad living conditions” and the same number “excessive working days or hours,” while there was “wage manipulation” in only one case. All these may overlap.
65.2% of migrant sex workers exhibited the ECW dimension.
(2) The Recruitment by Abuse of Vulnerability (RAV) Dimension
Recruiting a poor economic migrant is itself categorised by the ILO as an indicator of “recruitment by abuse of vulnerability.” A total of 137 of the 210 migrants have the “economic reasons” box checked, ie, they (or perhaps their family) needed the money. This put each of the 137 a third of the way towards their Recruitment by Abuse of Vulnerability (RAV) Dimension of Trafficking certificates.
Of our 210 migrants, there were 132 who found “difficulty in organising travel,” checking another box, and a further 122 had the “lack of education (language)” box checked, presumably for aiming to get to England or Wales but having poor English (was their Welsh checked, I wonder?).
Tick those three boxes and you’ve got your RAV Dimension of Trafficking Certificate.
Of our 210 migrants, 77 were in the country illegally – another RAV indicator – and presumably the same 77 had the “relationship with authorities/ legal status” box checked. Only 20 were said to be under the “control of exploiters,” a phrase as vague as “personal situation” (doesn’t everybody have one?) which covered a further 14. The recruitment of eight involved their “family situation,” while “lack of information” affected seven others.
65.2% of migrant sex workers exhibited the RAV dimension.
(3) The Abuse of Vulnerability at Destination (AVD) Dimension
Surprisingly, perhaps, of our 210, only 138 experienced “difficulty to live in an unknown area,” giving them a flying start to their AVD Dimension of Trafficking certificates. Exactly the same number had their “economic reasons” box checked – one more than had the same box checked for Recruitment by Abuse of Vulnerability, so maybe one lost all her dosh in transit.
So, those who found it difficult to get by in an unknown area and were hard up were already two-thirds of their way to their AVD certificate. “Relationship with authorities/legal status” was checked under AVD for 81 migrants, 77 of which had also been checked as being here illegally under the RAV heading.
Again a big gap after these top three indicators.
Twenty-five of the migrant women were flagged up for “dependency on exploiters” and five for their “family situation.” One was said to have “difficulties in the past” (a ‘weak’ indicator).
40% of migrant sex workers exhibited the AVD dimension.
(4) The Deceptive Recruitment (DR) Dimension
Fourteen of the women were apparently deceived over their travel or recruitment conditions, twelve over their likely wages and earnings, and only eight over their job or location (job/location is a ‘strong‘ indicator). Two were deceived over “conditions of prostitution.” Contrary to popular opinion, UK brothels do not seem to be crammed with young foreign would-be nannies being raped at gunpoint. These cases mostly overlap.
Only 4.8% of migrant sex workers were deemed deceptively recruited.
(5) The Coercive Recruitment (CR) Dimension
Ten percent of the women (21) were deemed “debt bonded,” which is a ‘strong’ indicator, and 16 had had their passports and other documents confiscated (another ‘strong’ indicator). Twelve had their money withheld from them, and in five cases there was real or threatened violence to their families. Three were recruited through threats to inform their family, community or the public, presumably of their occupation. These cases largely overlap.
8.1% of migrant sex workers exhibited the CR dimension.
(6) The Coercion at Destination (CD) Dimension
The 21 debt bondage cases under the CR dimension also count under the CD dimension (as it is at the destination that the debt has to be repaid) and also count as a ‘strong‘ indicator under this heading. Seventeen of the women had been “forced into illicit/criminal activities” – another indicator – while 16 are said to be “under strong influence,” though of what or whom isn’t specified.
Eight were forced to perform certain tasks (presumably sexual services) or accept certain clients (another ‘strong’ indicator), while seven had wages withheld. Five had threats made against their family (also recorded under the CR heading), and three were forced to lie to the authorities and/or their families. The only case of violence against a victim occurred (as a ‘strong’ indicator) in this category. These cases mostly overlap.
11.4% of migrant sex workers exhibited the CD dimension.
Results and the National Picture
At the end of the day, only two dozen (or 11.4%) of Project Acumen’s 210 migrant sex working women exhibited four or more “dimensions of trafficking” and were thus deemed “trafficked” under these criteria. They consisted of 19 Asians and five Eastern Europeans.
All those who exhibited just one, two or three dimensions were then lumped into the “vulnerable” category, which numbered 113 of the 210. This included all who had “no social protection” eg through not having health insurance because they’d all be flagged up for “Exploitative Conditions of Work,” having been automatically accorded two other indicators in that “dimension.”
This still left 73, including most of the Eastern Europeans – as neither trafficked nor “vulnerable.”
They asked themselves questions like “How many Asians have we got?” and “How many Eastern Europeans have we got?” and so on. Basically, they decided their sample was unrepresentative.
What they did then was to beef up various elements in their sample on the basis of what they thought the areas of origin of the UK’s national migrant sex worker population are.
For example, 52 – or just under a quarter – of their 210 sample sex workers were Asian. However, they reckon that 6,024 (35%) of their 17,344 migrant sex workers in England and Wales are Asian. As nineteen (or 36.5%), of the Asians in their sample were trafficked, this would mean 2,199 trafficked Asians.
Eastern Europeans comprised 59% of the sample, but barely 53% of their national estimate. Just five Eastern Europeans were found to be trafficked, which was 4.1% of the sample. Altogether, they think England and Wales has 9,234 migrant Eastern European sex workers. At 4.1%, 379 of these would be trafficked.
And that’s it. Our 2,199 trafficked Asians and 379 trafficked Eastern Europeans make up Acumen’s estimated 2,578 trafficked sex workers, which has been rounded up to 2,600 for publicity purposes. Nobody is estimated to have been trafficked from North or South America, Africa or Australasia. Despite the sample including 24 Brazilians, a Jamaican, three Zimbabweans, a Kenyan and a Kiwi, none of these were trafficked.
Conclusions: What Project Acumen does and doesn’t tell us
Compared to the last ‘serious’ UK effort to estimate sex trafficking victims (the notorious 4,000 trafficked women and children in the UK guess back in 2003/4), there is little doubt that Setting the Record is a very marked improvement. Admittedly, this isn’t saying much, but it actually has a methodology and it’s available from the outset, which are two big steps forward.
For me, its greatest weakness lies in the lack of explanation over how the particular 142 premises visited were selected. Footnotes show they included massage parlours, houses and flats, but other than that, one is left to speculation.
Obviously they were targetting brothels with large percentages of migrant sex workers: the 44 UK sex workers among them suggest, on average, 83% of the sex workers in them were migrants. Selection of venues is clearly one way in which the results could have been skewed.
Perhaps Project Acumen’s greatest use lies in busting stereotypes. Violence and coercion is unacceptable at any level, but, having said that, it clearly isn’t as endemic as many have painted it in the sex industry, with just one sex worker assaulted and five families out of 210 said to have threatened with violence. Detail on the 21 ‘debt bondage’ cases is lacking, in some cases the debt could merely be covering genuine costs of travel and subsistence, in others far more vast and complicated, covering family debts and so forth.
Of 210 migrant sex workers, at least 202 entered their situations knowing full well what they were getting into, few deceived would-be nannies here. Other than the debt bondage cases, few seem coerced or pressurised by organisers, and the most that can be said about the majority is that they are no more vulnerable than most of us would be living in a foreign country with limited knowledge of the language, some of them present unlawfully.
Some obvious questions either weren’t asked or, if they were, the answers weren’t reported. How many of the women would like to pack in and be taken home? How many would otherwise like to escape? How many were mothers trying to raise children, how many successfully supporting families back home etc? And for how many has sex work been a means to an end to meet their migration need?
For an academic analysis of Setting the Record, see Belinda Brooks-Gordon’s piece on Jack of Kent’s blog here.