More to Trafficking Than Prostitution – debate at IOM
The condition of victims of forced labour worldwide may be unrecognised because many states and organisations see it only in the light of a fight against prostitution.
The relation between prostitution and trafficking was one of the most controversial subjects debated at an international conference on trafficking called by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Palermo, Italy May 21-22.
“When we talk about trafficking, we shouldn’t treat its different forms as separate issues,” Nerea Bilbatua, regional programme officer for Europe at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women told participants. “The focus has been on trafficking for sexual exploitation, but we should also focus on trafficking outside the sex industry, because in many countries, national laws only deal with sexual exploitation.
“This means that, for instance, a victim of trafficking working in domestic service or a restaurant does not have access to the kind of assistance available to victims of sexual exploitation, and that is unjust,” Bilbatua told IPS.
Some justify the focus on prostitution on the basis of statistical evidence. “Official UN data has it that 75 percent of trafficking involves women and children being sexually exploited,” Marilyn La Tona, head of the delegation from the Vienna International Alliance of Women to the UN told IPS.
These statistics were energetically attacked by John Davis, research fellow at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research. “It’s corrupt data, these numbers are highly speculative and only help create moral panic,” he said in response to La Tona.
“There is research and evidence on vulnerability and migration, and none was taken into account for the convention. It has collapsed into anti- prostitution,” said Davis, who believes the anti-prostitution lobby has hijacked the issue of trafficking, and is profiting from it.
“Those doing the real work on forced labour are sitting in the back of the queue, and all the money is going to the sex issue,” Davis said.
“Many governments treat sexual exploitation differently from labour exploitation,” Bilbatua told IPS. “Statistics show mostly women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation, which reinforces the idea of trafficking as above all a problem of sexual exploitation and that this is the most important aspect of it, but this is because nobody goes to other places, like fields, to verify other forms of exploitation.”
Bilbatua agreed with Davis in that sexual trafficking statistics are not trustworthy. “You are never sure where these numbers come from, and from an academic point of view they are not very credible.”
Experts increasingly believe the number of people in non-sexual forced labour may be grossly underestimated, and that trafficking for sexual work is not as dominant in overall forced labour as previously believed.
Behind the debate lies a deep disagreement over the nature of prostitution and its legality. “I and other organisations consider that even when we speak of voluntary sexual work, behind there is always some criminal adjustments; this is why even states like Holland are starting to review their laws on freedom of sexual laws,” La Tona told IPS.
The activist defended the Swedish model, which punishes the client as the perpetrator of the crime. “You need to stop the request from the market, if demand is high you have more sexual slaves being brought in,” she said.
Hundreds of thousands of sexual workers are said to be lured into migrating with promises of decent work, marriage or through threats of violence or blackmail. Still, some believe that many of these women know they will become prostitutes, even if unaware of the exact conditions of their work.
Davis brought in his own experience to argue against La Tona and like- minded activists. “My mother was a prostitute when we were very poor. The only ones who gave her problems were policemen, never clients or pimps,” he told the conference.
The academic, who has carried out research amid alleged Albanian victims of trafficking, attacked the view of prostitutes as always gullible victims of manipulative traffickers.
“Working women exchange sex for money for all sorts of reasons,” Davis said. “People ending up in prison as traffickers are the Moldovan prostitutes who paid the train ticket for the other six fellow prostitutes travelling with them, so if this is about sending sex working women to prison for 18 years, I don’t want to have nothing to do with it.”