At a slave shop near you

by
02 November 2006

A report written in 2000 for the Home Office estimated that in the London area alone about 1400 young women were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Police in Scotland, however, suggested that the numbers there could now be running at 6000. Recent documentaries and docu-soaps, such as Human Traffic (shown on Channel 4), have highlighted the violence surrounding this trade.

Over the first two years of its life, the faith-based charity CHASTE (Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking across Europe), Britain's first ecumenical coalition to resist trafficking, has been supporting those brought to the UK for abuse in our sex markets.

Source countries for the people who provide the raw material for this lucrative business range from the west coast of Africa across the continent to Uganda and Rwanda. Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Pakistan are also plundered, as are the countries of eastern Europe, and Russia, including those that have recently joined the European Union, such as Latvia and Estonia.

Victims have been trafficked by their countrymen and -women, sometimes aided by members of their own families, into a life in which their liberty has been erased, and their self-respect and bodily integrity have been destroyed.

Trafficked women are exploited in a wide range of locations. There are probably trafficked women working in a brothel near your urban parish church, or your cathedral. Since an estimated 75 per cent of women working in off-street brothels in London are foreign nationals, there is a strong probability that some of them were trafficked.

We know that the risk is not just concentrated in London: the problem is nationwide, spreading even as far as small market towns. Wherever there are concentrations of people, there are brothels, massage parlours, escort agencies, lap-dancing clubs, and secured houses, where a woman can be bought for half an hour for about £50-60.

Of course, if the woman has been trafficked, she will see very little of this money, even if, as in some cases, she is visited by more than 20 punters each day.

Christianity has always focused on the way in which our worlds are interconnected through the creative activity of God. Trafficking connects our worlds through an activity that is malign. The EU, North America, Oceania, and Japan are the markets supplied by people who can deceive, abuse, and enforce compliance from those who are in a situation of trust and vulnerability.

Victims are commodities moved around the global market. They are consumed by the men who, in paying their money to a receptionist, pimp, or party-arranger, believe that they have dispensed with their responsibilities.

Those who feel that Britain is a long way from such abuse need to remember that the markets of demand are in our community. Someone's neighbour, colleague, parishioner, partner, son, father, or brother is using his money to abuse someone. Somehow he is justifying this to himself.

Moreover, trafficking is not only international. Women and minors are trafficked internally in Britain, from Birmingham to Edinburgh, from Manchester to Cardiff, from London to Newcastle, as the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping (CROP) reminds us.

One of the most arresting biblical exchanges is that of Jesus and the woman in the house of Simon the leper (Mark 14.3-9; Luke 7.36-50). This unnamed woman, generally understood to be a prostitute, and traditionally associated with Mary Magdalene, pours costly ointment over Jesus's body, and wipes his feet with her hair.

The message of the gospel is that an integral part of Christian discipleship is to tackle the shadowy world of men who pay for sex. Yet these readings are seldom explored in church as an invitation to reconsider our sexuality, and the liberation from the bondage of prostitution and violence that this woman was probably experiencing.

CHASTE calls on the Churches to designate a sex-trafficking Sunday, as part of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in 2007. Trafficking lives in the shadows of our consumer culture. It is time for this sin to be brought to the attention and prayers of all congregations.

CHASTE is also making extra capacity in safe housing for those rescued through police operations. Without places of safety, those who have been trafficked are still at risk, and cannot feel confident to start working with the authorities to give evidence against traffickers. Providing sanctuary is another ancient Christian tradition.

Trafficking people for sexual exploitation is part of a wider frame of abuse. There is multi-billion-pound global business in the trafficking of people 's bodies for various forms of exploitation: Indian labourers in Dubai, Sudanese boy camel-riders in the United Arab Emirates, Cambodian children in Vietnam, children from Benin across West Africa as domestic servants, child soldiers in central Africa, Russian food-packers in Norfolk, and Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay.

On 1 January, the Home Office announced a consultation on how Britain is developing its response to trafficking. Next week, 100 delegates from the main Christian denominations in Britain, and other Christian charities and agencies, will gather at a conference convened by CHASTE. It will explore the reasons for trafficking, government responses, and some of the ways in which churches can become involved in enforcing zero tolerance of it.

The CHASTE website contains information about how churches can support victims of trafficking and affect government policy. So far, the Government has not signed the Council of Europe's convention against trafficking; neither has it ratified the Palermo Protocol, which seeks to assist victims. Adoption of this legislation would go some way to ensuring justice for victims, and the effective prosecution of traffickers.
 
The Revd Dr Carrie Pemberton is CEO of CHASTE (www.chaste.org.uk), and a commissioner of the Women's National Commission ( www.thewnc.org.uk ).

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