By not doing more to recognise the links between trafficking and prostitution, the Home Office are failing in their duty to protect the most vulnerable from sexual exploitation

The Guardian recently exposed numerous Home Office failures in protecting a young woman who was “repeatedly trafficked for sex” over the course of several years. This horrendous case highlights not only the links between trafficking and prostitution, but a systemic disregard and failure by the Government to properly get to grips with endemic sexual exploitation in the UK.

The links between trafficking and prostitution are often obfuscated by the pro-sex trade lobby, who claim that the two are distinct global phenomena. It argues that because prostitution is the consensual sale of sex, it therefore by definition cannot include trafficking, because trafficking is non-consensual. This linguistic sleight of hand does nothing to actually help the victims who are trafficked either domestically or internationally to be forced into sexual slavery, such as the young woman at the centre of The Guardian’s recent report, while others profit.

Often, the argument of those who oppose the global sex-trade is mischaracterised as falsely equating all prostitution with trafficking, or vice-versa. This, simply put, is not the case at all. Prostitution is a system that utilises the servitude and commodification of people’s bodies (overwhelmingly women) for use and abuse by pimps and clients (overwhelmingly men) for nothing more than their sexual gratification.

Key to understanding how prostitution functions is to recognise that it is propped up by domestic and international trafficking, because otherwise, where are the bodies coming from? This does not mean that all prostitution is comprised of trafficked individuals, nor that all trafficked individuals are trafficked into prostitution; but prostitution does not occur without trafficking – the two are intrinsically linked. Even in New Zealand which is held up by pro-prostitution advocates as the “right way to legislate the sex trade”, once the country actually started to recognise internal trafficking as a type of trafficking (previously there was no such recognition by the Government), figures of those trafficked into prostitution began to creep up.

But this intersection of exploitation is often not given the recognition it requires, resulting in failures on a systemic level by Government bodies such as the Home Office. By only focusing on modern slavery, or¸prostitution, or trafficking into forced labour, instead of looking at these as a complex web of interdependent criminal enterprises, the Government is failing the very people it is – sometimes – trying to help.

But the young woman at the centre of The Guardian’s story was failed on numerous counts. There is no amount of recognition of exploitation links that would have papered over the cracks of what was a tremendous failure by the Home Office to protect a vulnerable individual. It is no good announcing new initiatives aimed at tackling modern slavery if the most vulnerable are repeatedly left behind and not included within the remit of these initiatives.

This failure is sadly indicative of a Government that does not truly care about getting to grips with sexual exploitation in the UK, but instead offering piecemeal investments and ineffective “digital training kits” that only focus on preventing slavery in the goods and services supply chain. This is not to say that the Government would be starting from scratch either: for example, there are many initiatives aimed at bringing together different ways to tackle modern slavery, including Government-lead groups that draw the links between prostitution and trafficking. But this work needs to be built on and continued at a renewed rate.

CEASE UK is calling on the Government to widen its focus as to what constitutes modern slavery and human trafficking, and to recognise that by combating sexual exploitation, they can simultaneously reduce the very same modern slavery and human trafficking it is trying to bring an end to.