Staying calm about trafficking and the Olympics: reasonable testimony in a London council meeting

Waltham Forest Town Hall

On 27 April 2011 I appeared as an expert witness to discuss sex trafficking in relation to the London Olympics of 2012. Five London boroughs are considered to be ‘hosts’ of the Olympics, meaning that actual events and buildings are located within their boundaries. This meeting took place in the council chamber of Waltham Forest town hall.,the grandness of which took me by surprise.

Others invited to testify at the meeting included the head of SCD9, the London Metropolitan Police’s year-old anti-trafficking unit. Despite being described by his colleague as the gold standard for understanding of human trafficking, Detective Chief Superintendent Richard Martin made errors of fact when talking about Germany and Holland and did not refer to the previous palpable failures of the national anti-trafficking unit in Sheffield (lots of money spent, few people arrested or saved, disbanded as ineffective). He also did not acknowledge that different British police authorities have published contradictory figures to describe arrests and rescues. This seemed to be a whitewashing of history through omission and a refusal to acknowledge any lessons learned even from not long past. Martin also did not mention recent raids on sex work venues in East London reported in the Observer, and he responded to my question about them by saying that SCD9, his unit, were not the ones to carry them out. Hm. Anyway the raids were reported as a typical anti-trafficking tactic – that is, a police move to repress a dangerous activity just in case something scary might possibly be on the cards.

Everyone present, including the Poppy Project, agreed that panics about sex trafficking and big sporting events have not occurred anywhere. No one attempted to scare the council about an impending avalanche of either trafficked victims or rapacious border-crossing sex workers. That seems like a small advance, although of course it may not last. I was happy to advise the council that there is no necessity for them to start up any pricey anti-trafficking campaign or raids on sex venues. Take it easy, was my message. And don’t stigmatise foreigners who are selling sex and don’t reproduce negative ethnic stereotypes (I was made uncomfortable by the way people referred to ‘eastern European women’ as the latest victims).

Charlotte Cooper and two other new friends living in East London accompanied me to the meeting; Charlotte wrote an account of it called Fat, Sex Work, Rescue Industries, and she took a photo of the imposing council chamber: I am over at the far right with Georgina Perry from the Open Doors sexual health project.

I enjoyed participating in this meeting for one important reason: the people listening really wanted to hear from the witnesses. They were interested and receptive, and, in my case, amazed to hear what I had to say. Afterwards several councillors came and said to me, We never hear this kind of information, I had no idea, Where do we find out more? and so on. In fact, even ordinary well-educated people never get to hear about undocumented migration, smuggling and pragmatic migrant sex work, because there is what amounts to an embargo on this information in the mainstream media. The BBC invited me to Luxor because that was called a debate, and as I had to explain to UN no-goodwill ambassador Sorvino, debate in the British tradition signifies dissent and difference of opinion. And while a lot of television and radio shows do some form of debating, many topics are taboo. Ludicrously, a Guardian editor once justified hiding my article The Shadowy World of Sex Across Borders by claiming ‘Our readers are not interested in trafficking.’ Oh, please. [Note: Fifteen minutes after the article appeared on the Guardian website it was removed and tucked out of sight, so that no one saw it and few commented. If this is not a form of censorship I don’t know what is.]

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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