Human trafficking into prostitution

Complicated global issue with lots of information elsewhere.  Trafficking involves moving people through violence, deception or coercion for the purpose of forced labour, servitude or slavery-like practices.  The International Labour Organisation estimated in 2005 that 2.4 million people had been trafficked into different forced labour situations.  Often these people will be asked to repay their traffickers exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of travelling illegally – and often they will not know they have been recruited by a trafficker until they are in the situation of slavery in the destination country.

The sex industry is a profession of choice for traffickers, for a variety of reasons.  The ‘developed’ world has demand for commercial sex which cannot be met by local women, meaning as well as advertising regularly for “girls wanted”, numbers of migrant women working in sex industries, particularly in Europe, have increased exponentially over the last ten years.  Research in 2004 in London that I was involved in found 730 brothels employing women from 93 different ethnicities.  81% of women working in off-street prostitution in London were not British.  According to trafficked women who escaped sometimes horrific conditions in these brothels, every brothel they worked in had women who were trapped by imprisonment, debt bondage, having their passports held or removed, threats, and physical and sexual violence. 

Women trafficked into prostitution report being pressured to perform unsafe sexual activities in order to pay off debts they “owe” their traffickers faster.  They also report near universal experiences of sexual or physical violence and ongoing serious health consequences to their mental, physical and sexual health even after they escape.

Because the sex industry is often criminalised, it is very difficult for migrant women to find routes out – when the police find them, in many countries they will simply be deported, often back to communities who will reject them because they are now “prostitutes.”  The situation in New Zealand is almost the reverse – while not criminalising women who sell sex is very welcome, an assumption that all is rosy in our sex industry has shut down even examining indications that we may well have a trafficking issue here.

Partly this is political – arguments over how much agency women in prostitution are able to exert have very much spilled over into discussions of trafficking.  Those who favour ideas of women choosing prostitution – even if from a limited range of choices – sometimes refuse to acknowledge trafficked women are in situations they have little, if any, control over, preferring to describe these women as “migrant sex workers.”  One of the migrant sex workers/trafficked women I worked with in London serviced 84 men one Christmas Day in Soho – 10 minute slots of men lined up around the block.  She escaped with the help of a friend by climbing through a window and sleeping on the floor of a women’s refuge.

And trafficked women are subject to myths about their lives and the violence they live with – many of which are variations of other brands of misogyny we may be more familiar with.

New Zealand is one of 117 nations who have ratified the United Nations Protocol to combat trafficking.  The purpose of the protocol is:

(a) To prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children;

(b) To protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights; and

(c) To promote cooperation among States Parties in order to meet those objectives.

However, New Zealand has next to no discussions of trafficking on a public or policy level.  This despite the US Trafficking in Persons 2008 report stating:

New Zealand is a destination country for women from Malaysia, Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, and other countries in Asia trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

We tend to believe that our sex industry is populated by women who have made a choice to be there – standard defence to any idea of exploitation.  The word trafficking is not mentioned once in the otherwise comprehensive Prostitution Law Review Committee 2005 report.

But the same report conservatively estimated there were 500 women from Thailand working in Auckland’s sex industry in 1999, and in 2005, surveyed Police listed Thailand, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Phillippines, Cambodia and Laos as countries of origin for women working in the sex industry.  The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective added “Eastern European” to this list.

All of these areas or countries are trafficking countries of origin – countries in which traffickers have set up networks in order to recruit and transport local women into the sex industries of ‘developed’ countries.  It would be naive in the extreme to fail to consider many of these women may be in situations of exploitation, violence and abuse. 


So, trafficking, big issue, not really acknowledged in New Zealand despite some indications, no co-ordinated response or analysis of the situation so far.  And the worrying fact that as many states have tried to “help trafficked women” they have introduced repressive and human rights restricting legislation and practices like requiring women to testify against their traffickers to get assistance and safe housing.


When the Poppy Project released the report about London’s sex industry I’ve linked to above, the Metropolitan Police contacted us asking us for brothel addresses.  We asked them to guarantee that every woman they found would be given the chance to talk to an advocate.  Their request died a death – because their agenda was not about those women’s safety.  

New Zealand’s assumptions that our sex industry is comparatively free of harm may not be sustainable if we look at both who is working there and how traffickers are operating globally – but ill-thought state responses are almost as dangerous.  As I said, complicated global issue.

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