On Anti-Slavery Day, we must recognise the undeniable links between modern slavery, human trafficking, and prostitution

The 18th October marks Anti-Slavery Day, a day to commemorate the passing into law of the Anti-Slavery Day Act 2010. Anti-Slavery Day is held in the UK to raise awareness of the need to eradicate all forms of slavery, human trafficking and exploitation.

For some, modern slavery and human trafficking may seem like issues far-removed from life in the UK; as things that only happen “out there” in conflict zones, or under regressive political regimes, but sadly, that could not be farther from the truth. Despite the UK being viewed as a world-leader in terms of its efforts to combat modern slavery – particularly since, and with, the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 – this distinct form of exploitation remains extremely prevalent within our borders.

Under the wider umbrella terms of modern slavery and human trafficking, one of the most widespread forms of exploitation is that of sexual exploitation, particularly within the context of prostitution and the broader commercial sex industry.

trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation that makes up almost one-third of the entire global profits of human traffickers

Whilst the terms “modern slavery” and “trafficking” cover several different forms of exploitation, it is trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation that makes up almost one-third of the entire global profits of human traffickers, despite those who are subjected to sexual exploitation making up approximately only 19% of modern slavery victims. This, put bluntly, is because somebody can only be sold into forced labour or domestic servitude comparatively few times, compared to a victim of sexual exploitation who can be sold hundreds and even thousands of times to different “buyers”.

Many groups are quick to argue that “trafficking and sex work should not be conflated”, and indeed, not all trafficking is for the purposes of prostitution and neither does all prostitution result from trafficking. However, it is vital to understand that the two phenomena are intrinsically linked: wherever there is prostitution, there is some form of trafficking.

For example, research demonstrates that within the EU, conservative estimates place the number of women in prostitution who have been trafficked at one in seven. In one particular example from the Netherlands, six defendants were found guilty of trafficking more than 100 women into State-regulated prostitution via a sprawling and organised network of accomplices.

In Germany, only 7,700 of 40,400 who registered to provide “prostitution services” are German nationals, with 80% of all other registered individuals being foreign nationals, mainly from Romania, a country which has been referred to as ‘the sex trafficking factory of Europe’ and is ranked by the European Commission as one of the leading source-countries for victims of trafficking. In actuality, the prostitution “market” in Germany is estimated to be more than 400,000 individuals, a large proportion of which are likely to have been trafficked.

Looking closer to home, the influx of prostituted women from outside the UK in recent years cannot be ignored. In July 2020, the Centre for Social Justice found that all types of modern slavery – including sexual exploitation – were increasing.

Their report found that the most common type of exploitation was sexual exploitation (33%).  During the Covid-19 pandemic there was a 280% increase in the advertising of sexual services online in the West Midlands, with the women being of predominantly Eastern European origin, and a representative from Women’s Aid stated that there had also been an increase in on-street prostitution in Birmingham. A 2018 APPG report stated that ‘…modern slavery and human trafficking are far more prevalent than previously thought’, and that there were ‘growing reports of organised crime groups sexually exploiting women around the UK in so-called ‘pop-up brothels’.

Clearly, there are an increasing number of women and children being trafficked into the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation andin short, they are victims of both human trafficking and modern slavery. It is vital that lobby groups, politicians, and human rights charities recognise the incontrovertible proof that links modern slavery and sexual exploitation. To do anything else leaves thousands of modern slavery victims at the mercy of their exploiters and traffickers.

Today, on Anti-Slavery Day, it is time we no longer ignore the reality of the commercial sex trade, but instead recognise it for what it is: a hotbed of exploitation, abuse, trafficking, and violence.