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BATTERING DOWN THE DOOR – how not to handle human trafficking

by on March 9, 2009

POLICE IN ‘protective clothing’ rammed the door of a suspected Plymouth, UK brothel on Wednesday morning, handcuffing two Thai women – one in her nightwear – and placing them in separate rooms while they used a dog to search the premises.

The women, in their thirties, were later interrogated at a police station using kickingan interpreter. Police have not yet explicitly mentioned human trafficking, but according to the Plymouth Herald, a 47-year-old man was later detained having arrived at Heathrow following a business trip to the Far East on suspicion of money laundering and Consumer Credit offences.

Furthermore, along with immigration officers, the raid squad boasted members of a new ‘South West Illegal Money Lending Team’ – which would be consistent with debt bonding suspicions, a common feature of trafficking.

The Plymouth raid is far from alone – during their two national Pentameter operations targeting human trafficking in the sex industry, the UK’s 55 police forces conducted no less than 1,337 raids, largely on people’s homes and massage parlours, yet discovered a mere 255 victims – a tiny fragment of the Home Office’s albeit dubious 4,000-strong estimate of the numbers supposedly trafficked for sex in the UK.

But the police action could come strait out of the Guide on How Not to Handle Human Trafficking Incidents, according to a recent report from the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Centre in New York.

The study said the centre found that

raids can be counter-productive to anti-trafficking efforts by further traumatizing, intimidating and sometimes violating the rights of people who have been trafficked, making them less likely to seek help.

As one service provider said of one of her clients, “[She] was pulled out of a trafficking situation in such a way that she will never trust law enforcement or government and barely trusts me or her case worker.”

Celia, one of the women interviewed for the report, [said]: “These raids are ugly and horrible. They … bang on the door, they break the door, they come in with the guns out! It’s really horrible, sometimes if they are very angry, they don’t let you get dressed. … One never lets go of the fear. Being afraid never goes away. They provoke that.”

Jin, another study participant who was forced into prostitution, was arrested following a raid and sentenced to six months of incarceration before her defence attorney identified her as trafficked. She described being pistol-whipped and strip searched during a brothel raid: “[A] police officer struck me in the back of the head with the back of a gun and I fell to the floor and I passed out. At the time I didn’t know what was going on…I had no idea they were police when they all broke in. The ones that came in were not wearing uniforms. … a female officer … opened up my skirt and revealed my undergarments in front of everyone to see if I was hiding anything on me.”

This research suggests that raids should be reconsidered as a response to trafficking. As Jin put it, “A better way to help leave my situation would be anything that didn’t involve the police.”

Andrea Ritchie, Director of the Urban Justice Centre’s Sex Workers Project, said:

Anti-trafficking efforts should be community-based, led by people familiar with sex work and other sectors where there is vulnerability to trafficking, such as domestic work, agricultural labour, and service sectors, people who have experienced trafficking, social service providers, and immigrants rights advocates. This kind of approach would not only be more effective, but would build community and empower people who have been trafficked rather than subjecting them to the additional trauma of raids, arrests, and detention.

Of course, that is New York in the USA, not Plymouth in England. But with riot gear, door battering, police dogs and foreign women separated and handcuffed in nightwear, it sure sounds very, very similar.

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