We are writing to express our serious concerns about a number of joint UK Border Agency and police operations targeting migrant sex workers which took place during the week commencing 17th October, the week during which Anti-Slavery Day, 18th October 2016, is marked.

On Thursday 20th October in Soho and Chinatown, London, six premises were raided and closed as part of Operation Lanhydrock, carried out by the Metropolitan Police and UK Border Agency[1]. These raids led to protests by sex worker rights organisations outside the Home Office. Photos were taken during the raids, including of the earnings seized from the sex workers. No charges for trafficking were brought but 26 people were arrested for “immigration offences” including four Chinese women who have been detained awaiting deportation. The English Collective of Prostitutes was contacted by some women impacted who report that they were terrified.

In Leeds on the evening of 21st October, UK Border Agency accompanied by West Yorkshire Police attended the managed area in Leeds targeting migrant women, removing six women and detaining them in Yarlswood Immigration Removal Centre. Basis Sex Work Project who have visited them report that five women remain there in great distress.

In Bolton, Greater Manchester Police and UK Border Agency officers, raided premises and took BBC News with them. This is in violation of National Police Chiefs Council Guidance on sex work (2016) which explicitly recommends that the media not partake in any operational raids as ‘vulnerable victims may be present and consideration must be given to the potential consequences of publicly identifying sex workers which could seriously undermine their safety.’ (pg.11)

There may well have been other similar actions that occurred in other areas of England and Wales that have not as yet come to our attention.

Such raids and  ‘sweep’ type approaches are terrifying for those sex workers who are targeted by them and rarely achieve positive outcomes in terms of disclosures of exploitation including trafficking and slavery, areas in which gaining victim trust is complex and often takes time.  The National Police Chiefs Council guidance on sex work refers to the detrimental impact of such raids;

“Moreover, brothel closures and ‘raids’ create a mistrust of all external agencies including outreach services. It is difficult to rebuild trust and ultimately reduces the amount of intelligence submitted to the police and puts sex workers at greater risk.” (pg. 10)

Operations targeting migrant sex workers, who are amongst the most vulnerable to exploitative working conditions and violence (particularly those with irregular and illegal migration status), in a manner which seems to pay scant regard to welfare despite claims to be addressing vulnerability or modern slavery, are both extremely worrying and are discriminatory.

Historically such operations in the UK and elsewhere do not stop migrant people going into sex work nor do they support victims of slavery; indeed they force migrants further underground into more illicit means of working, increase dependency on third parties including coercive controllers make migrants more fearful of (and further alienate) the police, services and others support networks.  This is highlighted by a quote from one of the women in Yarlswood;

“The night of the operation was awful. I had a good relationship with the police previously. They asked if I was ok … I felt safe on the street. I knew the police were around and I’d call them if I needed them. .. I tried to go when I saw the police but the normal police took me to the immigration police. They said I’d be ok. When I found out they were going to deport me”.

These actions are alarming and we seriously question the effectiveness of such an approach to identifying victims of slavery and trafficking and prosecute coercers.  In addition, if these actions were motivated, as claimed, by a desire to “rescue” victims then inviting media, taking photos to post on social media and involving the UK Border Agency seriously undermines any sense of “victim” care.

We also have serious doubts over whether the impact on sex workers and their relationship with police and services, which is clearly outlined in the NPCC Guidelines, was considered. Following Operation Pentameter, a nationally coordinated operation to address  trafficking for sexual exploitation which took place in 2008, it transpired that ‘after raiding 822 brothels, flats and massage parlours all over the UK, Pentameter finally convicted of trafficking a grand total of only 15 men and women’  (Guardian 2009).[2]

At a time in the UK when of the last 15 murders of sex workers in the UK 11 (73%) were migrant women (NUM UKNSWP murder database) we would expect authorities responsible for public protection and the prevention of serious crime to be prioritising the safety of all sex workers, particularly migrants, whatever their circumstances, not undermining safety and exacerbating their vulnerability. As the NPCC National Police Guideline states; ‘As a law enforcement agency, the safety of people engaged in sex work must be paramount to the police service’. (pg6)

It also states that;

“A significant proportion of people in the UK sex industry are migrants, of a range of nationalities, have a range of status in terms of immigration, working in a range of circumstances hence migrant sex workers should be treated as individuals.  Consideration must be given to their particular needs. Sex workers in the UK are stigmatised and face discrimination. When these factors are combined with legal, cultural, language issues and racism faced by many migrant sex workers, a disadvantaged and excluded vulnerable group is created.  Many migrants especially those with undocumented or irregular immigration status are reluctant to report any crimes committed against them to the police for fear of prosecution for immigration offences and a lack of trust in the police, for some, due to poor experiences of police in home nations.  This leaves migrant workers vulnerable to targeted crimes with perpetrators believing they will not be reported” (pg.14)

Hence, we would expect local forces and their partner agencies to be developing approaches to improve the safety and welfare of migrant people not undermining it. We urge the authorities to cease these actions and consider the detrimental impact on the safety, rights and welfare of migrant sex workers and sex workers more widely in the UK.

We want the authorities to establish and make public;

  • How many such actions took place and on what intelligence were they based?
  • How much money has been seized from sex workers and when will it be returned to them?
  • Whether they were part of coordinated national initiatives? If so which organisation provided direction? What were the objectives of these operations?
  • How many migrant sex workers did officers have contact with?
  • What were the outcomes for these sex workers? How many were removed to detention centres?
  • How many victims of slavery and/or trafficking for sexual exploitation were identified and referred to the NRM? How are they being supported?
  • What charges have been brought to date and how many charges relate to slavery and trafficking?

It is crucial that police and authorities are transparent and open, particularly when it concerns the welfare of a socially excluded group, whose rights can easily be violated by the actions of the authorities.

Signatories:

  • National Ugly Mugs (UKNSWP)
  • English Collective of Prostitutes
  • Sex Worker Open University
  • Sex Work Research Hub
  • Scotpep
  • Basis Sex Work Project (Basis Yorkshire)

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