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SEX TRAFFICKING: the highs and lows of raids and rescue

by on August 29, 2010
I WAS EMAILED a couple of days ago by Carl Eve, crime reporter of the Plymouth Herald. In the light of my appraisal of Project Acumen and its estimate of ‘sex slaves’ in England and Wales, he wanted my views on a particularly nasty trafficking case he’d covered in Devon.

This was simple enough, as I’d written a post about it a couple of days after Carl’s story was published in February last year. To summarise his story: a 29-year-old Thai mother-of-two and business owner ran into financial trouble and borrowed money from a ‘friend’ – only to discover a third party had financed the loan. She paid off the principal amount, but the interest was crippling and the spiral of debt, after the sale of her assets, still left her well in the red.

Effectively, she became debt bonded, and was told by her creditors she would have to come to the UK to work as a “waitress.“

Around September 13, 2007, she and the female head of the trafficking gang, ‘Jaiju’, flew in to Dublin airport on false passports having been refused UK visas. They took the train to Belfast, then flew to Gatwick, thus evading UK border control. In an Earls Court flat, they met another woman, ‘Por‘.

Jaiju was handed £10,000 and returned to Thailand. ’Por’ had a sleeping partner, ‘Jak’, who was also female, who had a one third stake in the enterprise. Both partners had been trafficked themselves, worked off their debts, and then begun supplying trafficked women to brothels around the country.

The mother-of-two, named ‘Sue’ by the Herald, was told she would have to earn £60,000 as a prostitute to pay off her debt. Half the money she earned would go to the brothel owners and the other half to those to whom she was debt bonded.

On September 17, 2007 she was taken by train first to a brothel in Chesterfield. A week later she was transferred to one in the UK oil capital of Aberdeen, where life was in all ways harder. She serviced innumerable men, but managed one day to escape and use a phone number which had been cleverly planted with her as one she could ring if things went awry in the UK.

This led her, however, straight into the hands of another trafficker, who told her she had been sold to a Plymouth brothel for £15,000. There she stayed for a week. When told she was about to be moved again, she threw herself on the mercy of one last punter she had been asked to service there, a Dane referred to as ‘Mr K.’

Using a mixture of Thai and sign language, she tried to explain she’d been trafficked. Mr K left, but returned the following day, pretended he was a police officer, grabbed her and escaped. He and his former wife used a translation machine to establish she was trafficked.

Mr K earned plaudits all round, from the judge and from the police, and the Home Office immediately set about making it an offence for a punter to arrange, let alone have, sex with a coerced woman, whether they know she’s coerced or not, with the obvious result that the Sues of this world stand less chance of ever being rescued again.

If Mr K does rescue another trafficking victim, besides the responses and reprisals of the traffickers, he will have to risk a £1,000 fine and having his mugshot all over the Plymouth Herald. This leads to a dilemma that has not gone unnoticed on this thread, started by ‘FillytheBish’ on Punternet, the industry website so beloved of Harriet Harman.

The Plymouth brothel in which ‘Sue’ had worked was raided on October 9, 2007, just 23 days after she had set off to Chesterfield by rail. Carl tells us Sue had already been replaced with another trafficking victim.

Now let’s briefly look at a photograph taken in Sue’s native Thailand nicked from Laura Agustin’s excellent blog, Border Thinking. In Thailand, sex work is both illegal and endemic, earning the Thai economy an estimated US$4.3 billion a year.

Laura’s photograph features an artwork created by sex workers protesting at ‘raids and rescues’ in their home country, taken at their local Empower centre. Let’s ask whether their raids are so very different from the raid conducted in Plymouth on October 9, 2007.

On their artwork, the Thai sex workers say that in raids:

  • We lose our savings and our belongings
  • We are locked up
  • We are interrogated by many people
  • They force us to be witnesses
  • We are held until the court case
  • We are held till deportation
  • We are forced re-training
  • We are not given compensation by anybody
  • Our family must borrow money to survive while we wait
  • Our family is in a panic
  • We are anxious for our family
  • Strangers visit our village telling people about us
  • The village and the soldiers cause our family problems
  • Our family has to pay ‘fines’ or bribes to the soldiers
  • We are sent home
  • Military abuses and no work continues at home
  • My family has a debt
  • We must find a way back to Thailand to start again

Not all such problems may beset sex workers after UK raids, but there are reports that many do.

In fact, what happens to the actual sex workers (as distinct from the managers) after UK raids is something of a mystery, as sex workers in UK brothels have committed no crime as such. The legal system is interested in them only insofar as they can generate evidence.

 If found to be trafficked, they should receive a degree of aftercare under international law, but as another Devon trafficking case, this time in Paignton, illustrated, the Home Office unbelievably has no budget to pay for the repatriation of foreign Europeans, trafficked or not. In that case, the local constabulary had to raise money from charity to allow the girl to get home. Incidentally, that’s another case where local punters were praised as crucial for helping out the investigation (again from before the Policing and Crime Act 2009, of course).

If found to be from outside the European Economic Area, and without valid UK documentation, sex workers, like anybody else, may face deportation

At a personal and family level, deportation can be a massive setback. This is not so much due to the stigma of sex work back in the local home community – any number of stories could be invented about where one had been and what one was doing – as much as the consequences of failed migration. Extended families may have been reliant on the income of the sex worker to make ends meet, her arrival in the UK to begin with can represent a huge investment, and whilst much energy is spent by radical feminists blaming men for creating the demand for sex work, and by the police with suggestions they fund ‘organised crime‘, little credit is given for the extensive number of third world families dependent on western lusts to keep the wolf from the door.

If wishing to be “rescued” from sex work, UK or European sex workers may be buried beneath a veritable avalanche of charity workers, Salvationists and people from the Poppy Project desperate for testimony of their past life being “all abuse and a life of hell” – as Julie Bindel put it – for their next coven meeting.

But the majority – those legally in Britain and happy, or desperate, but at least willing – to lay for pay – have a problem. Their brothel – a place of relative safety for sex workers compared to the streets – is probably inaccessible following the raid, at worst even formally closed and boarded up by law for three months under new closure orders. Even if accessible, those with management skills and knowledge are often in detention, their computers seized for evidence, creating an administrative nightmare for those who remain.

As Project Acumen acknowledged, those sex workers from Eastern Europe may have great difficulties with their English, having relied very largely on, in their words, “their controllers” – those now in custody. They become hostages to fortune. Some may be absorbed into other local brothels. Sometimes a local punter will try to find them a new home. Sometimes there are good outcomes, but often bad. Few, however, could be worse than life on the streets.

For all these reasons, the reporting of a suspected trafficking case to the police is not something to be taken lightly. On occasion, as in Mr K‘s case, it may lead to a spectacular rescue and a series of arrests. But what are the unintended consequences for the many parties affected both directly and, in the case of families abroad, indirectly – many of whom come to the attention of neither the courts nor the media?

Like the judge and police, one can admire Mr K for what he did in rescuing ‘Sue‘. The problem lies not in the rescue but in the subsequent raid and its consequences. Yet how can one knowingly leave a case of coerced trafficking in situ? The dilemma of FillytheBish is not an easy one: will involving the authorities do more harm than good?

I found myself writing about another Plymouth, Devon case (Carl keeps me busy) in March last year. Police in riot gear protective clothing smashed their way into a suspected brothel, separated and handcuffed two Thai women, one still in her nightwear, and used a dog to search the premises.

I was surprised to find my criticism of the police tactics actually made the news in Devon.

In March last year too, I came across the New York Urban Justice Centre’s publication Kicking Down the Door (pdf), on the use of raids to fight human trafficking.

After interviewing trafficked persons, sex workers, law enforcement personnel, social service providers and lawyers, they gave a big thumbs down to ‘raid and rescue’ as a way forward. In New York, of course, police carry guns and sex workers commit a crime by working in brothels – but in other respects nobody would bat an eyelid at these accounts happening in the UK.

The report quotes Celia, arrested seven times by local police without being screened for trafficking:

These raids are ugly and horrible. They…bang on the door, they break the door…In the beginning, it’s frightening and upsetting. [Law enforcement] could do anything, you don’t know what they are going to do. … It’s really horrible, sometimes if they are very angry, they don’t let you get dressed. They take you in your work clothes. … One never lets go of the fear. Being afraid never goes away. They provoke that.

Kicking Down the Door interviewed 15 migrant women, all of whom were either sex workers, trafficked persons or both, about their experiences.

Fourteen of the 15 were recognized as trafficked by the US government and were seeking or benefiting from the services and immigration status afforded to certified trafficking victims. Only 12 of them, however, self-identified as trafficked. The 15th did not apply for status as a trafficked person.

Twelve of the 15 were sex workers, nine of which self-identified as trafficked, but 11 of which were recognised by the Government as trafficked.

Half the 12 women in trafficking situations left on their own, without law enforcement intervention, with the help of a colleague (a sex worker or someone else from their workplace) or an attorney whom they met through a colleague or friend.

Seven of the 15 women had been picked up in federal anti-trafficking raids. Nine of the 15 women, had been arrested in local police raids, some of them on numerous occasions. One had been arrested ten times. Yet none had been identified as trafficked by local law enforcement following a raid, despite seven of the nine self-identifying as trafficked. Only one had been asked whether she was coerced into sex work following arrest by local law enforcement.

Two out of five women who believed that they were trafficked and had done sex work were held in immigration detention for weeks before identifying themselves to law enforcement as trafficked, and one was jailed on a prostitution conviction after a raid until her defence attorney recognized that she might have been trafficked.

Said Jin, arrested following a raid, convicted of prostitution, and sentenced to six months incarceration before being identified as trafficked by her defence attorney:

There were so many policemen; the whole house was filled with maybe 15 officers. I was in ‘the boss’ house.’ I didn’t know anything. I saw the auntie run so I ran too and as I was running 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.…I had no idea they were police when they all broke in. The ones that came in were not wearing uniforms. When I woke up, then I saw people with uniforms. I was passed out for less than a minute. I was struck in the head really hard. I woke up because someone was picking me up. It was a female officer and she opened up my skirt and revealed my undergarments in front of everyone to see if I was hiding anything on me. I was scared, I didn’t even know what they wanted to do, at that point I would do whatever they said I was so frightened.

The women interviewed expressed a variety of opinions on the use of raids as an anti-trafficking tool and the role played by the raid in obtaining their freedom.

Jin, who was arrested in a local police raid, said that she would eventually have left on her own, because she expected to be released by her trafficker two days after the raid in which she was arrested.

Josefina, who was coerced into prostitution and was identified as trafficked as a result of a federal anti-trafficking raid, said that she would have left on her own if she had known a safe place to go.

Although Ofelia knew of no other way to escape her situation, she nevertheless described the raid and her subsequent detention as “terrible.”

Another woman said that she would have preferred to leave her situation by leaving with a co-worker rather than being rounded up in a raid.

The experiences of these women suggest that increasing awareness among sex workers and immigrant communities of resources available to trafficked people, including safe refuges, would go a long way to enabling them to leave coercive situations without the necessity and trauma of law enforcement intervention.

Said Lilly, arrested by local law enforcement five times before being identified as trafficked following a federal anti-trafficking raid.

They were wearing guns and uniforms, and it made me very scared. They didn’t tell us anything. They treated us like criminals during the arrest and it was scary.

Here in the UK, among a sample of sex trafficked women reported on by London’s Poppy Project (pdf), only 17% escaped their situation as a result of raids. Most escaped by themselves or with the aid of another.


 Five federal law enforcement personnel were interviewed for the Kicking Down the Door study, and described the procedures, positive outcomes and challenges of anti-trafficking raids. They had mixed views on raids as anti-trafficking tools. Said one:

The nature of the crime and the nature of the victims make raids not effective. What level of evidence do you need? You need a victim to be willing to open up and tell you…I don’t see raids being a consistently effective tool. The best situation is if you know there’s a problem.

Four of the five officials had been on-site during raids; the fifth had worked with people rounded up in raids. Two of the five were very critical, noting that people who experience raids are often not good witnesses in subsequent anti-trafficking investigations and prosecutions because they distrust law enforcement.
While one believed raids produced both good and bad results, two spoke in favour of raids, and one law enforcement employee reported experiencing symptoms associated with secondary trauma. 

Law enforcement personnel reported that raids were useful for:

  • Locating and identifying witnesses for law enforcement
  • Removing victims from terrible situations. In theory, they believed that raids lead to the delivery of services and assistance to trafficked persons; and
  • Bringing down criminal networks

However, law enforcement personnel described difficulties gaining the trust of people who had been victimised and subsequently detained.

The perspectives of law enforcement officers interviewed differed from trafficking survivors and sex workers in that their primary focus was the successful initiation of criminal prosecutions and the willingness of trafficked persons to serve as witnesses. Nevertheless, they indicate that criminal justice procedures are less likely to be successful where trafficked persons are intimidated by law enforcement actions.


Further criticism of raids as a means of rescue came from lawyers and service providers – those attempting to address the needs of the trafficked and of sex workers. Referring to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), one said:

What ICE calls a rescue is barging into someone’s apartment at 6 a.m. and terrorizing them.

Raids to combat trafficking do not prioritise the needs of the trafficked, but rather the goal of prosecution. Service providers and lawyers emphasized to the Kicking Down the Door study that raids are chaotic events during which the people directly targeted have little understanding of what is happening, and cited trauma and detention as common consequences on trafficking victims.

Service providers also noted that treatment during raids bears directly upon whether a detained person will speak frankly about their experiences, or self-identify as having been coerced or otherwise abused.

The raids that I’m most familiar with have taken place in the wee hours of the morning, usually in a person’s home, not in their place of work, and it’s been really frightening. They initially believe it’s because they are undocumented, and then later, in the moment in high drama, they realize [that law enforcement agents] are after the victims because of prostitution, and then it becomes frightening because their families don’t know they were involved in prostitution. … Usually in the raids I’ve been told about the law enforcement officer playing tough before explaining that law enforcement believes the women are victims. One client described…that on the way to the station, an ICE agent said, ‘You shouldn’t be in this country anyway,’ and she said later, ‘How dare you! You have no idea how I got here!’ And she had been trafficked and had the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness.

Social workers and lawyers, especially those who had been present at or following a raid, spoke strongly against them. All 26 service providers said:

  • They did not receive referrals of trafficked people as a result of local police vice raids, suggesting such raids do not identify trafficked people
  • Federal anti-trafficking raids can lead to the deportation of many people rounded up before they can be properly screened for trafficking
  • Law enforcement did not consistently follow up on trafficked people’ willingness to cooperate with investigations or provide the necessary support for applications to adjust immigration status and for benefits and assistance
  • There does not appear to be a standard procedure for identifying trafficked people following federal anti-trafficking raids or local law enforcement vice raids, leading to widely divergent treatment of people rounded up in such raids; and
  • Law enforcement agents use interrogation techniques, including intimidation, that are entirely incompatible with an approach that prioritises the needs of trafficked people.

Additionally, ten service providers reported that raids create circumstances facilitating police misconduct, including sexual misconduct, against trafficked people.

By the time that we talked to any of the women in any of these cases, they had already been interrogated at least once if not more, and based on those interrogations, maybe a second or third, their entire future is determined. They aren’t informed about their rights in a way that a reasonable person would believe. I arrest you, handcuff you, fingerprint you, interrogate you and then tell you that you have these rights.

Social service providers described their clients experiencing trauma after raids, and added that raids uproot trafficked people from their communities, and can effectively render them homeless. Some people picked up in raids, especially people who earned living wages, experienced severe economic hardship as a result.

Many trafficking survivors were alienated from law enforcement and did not speak about their situations. Others who were trafficked by their husbands or partners did not self-identify as trafficked following raids.

I have had prosecutors shout at my clients to try to bully them into cooperating. When you’re dealing with a teenager who has been repeatedly raped and impregnated by her trafficker, this is not the way to behave humanely.

In addition to expressing significant concerns regarding the effects of raids on trafficked people, caseworkers and social workers described experiencing symptoms of secondary trauma related to their work with trafficked people, and particularly with those who had been traumatized by their experiences in raids. These conditions contribute to high turnover and undermine service providers’ ability to adequately address their clients’ needs.

The trauma of raids and the requirement of subsequent cooperation with law enforcement have long-term effects on trafficked people and those who do not self-identify as trafficked. Additionally, raids have ripple effects on immigrant communities and sex workers beyond those directly affected by law enforcement activity, increasing fear and driving sex work and documented people further underground and farther beyond reach of assistance, and making sex workers and immigrants less likely to turn to law enforcement when they experience violence or coercion.


The Kicking Down the Door report calls for a different approach to finding and identifying trafficked people, “based on meeting the needs, protecting the rights, and supporting the self-determination of trafficked persons,” which, it says, “may prove to be a more effective response.”

“Women interviewed for this report described being helped by people they knew, including clients and co-workers, who recognised that they were in coercive situations and stepped in to offer help. Because they left trafficking situations in a non-coercive fashion, avoiding the trauma associated with a law enforcement raid, they were more prepared to cooperate with law enforcement in the prosecution of their traffickers. Ultimately, an approach that recognizes and supports the rights, agency and self-determination of trafficked persons is likely to produce better outcomes for trafficking survivors.”

Resources could be better spent on improving knowledge of facilities available to trafficking victims and helping migrant communities, rights advocates and sex workers themselves identify victims.

Detailed, in-depth investigations aimed at gathering solid evidence on the existence of coercion or involvement of minors is more successful, says the report, and raids should only be used as a last resort.

What we need in the UK, of course, are authorities that do more good than harm, who will rescue those requiring it and bring those responsible for coercion and deception to book, without destroying the infrastructure necessary for the survival and wellbeing of sex workers. But while brothels remain illegal, the authorities can’t be seen to fine tune them. The only good brothel is a closed brothel in this State of Denial.

  1. Peter Mauley permalink

    Another great post Stephen, keep up the good work.

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  1. ‘The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers’ « An Anthology of English Pros

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