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Prostitution and Trafficking in the UK

by Stephanie Weiland, for Rahab International.
May, 2005.

As recent increase in press coverage has indicated, both prostitution and trafficking in the UK are major causes for concern. Although prostitution is legal and trafficking is not, the two separate issues can both be seen as manifestations of violence against women and children which seem to be increasing in British society. The involvement of organized crime testifies to the high profitability of trafficking in particular. British demand for prostitutes has also led many to travel abroad, including paedophiles. The UK Government has taken some important legal steps intended to protect women and children involved in prostitution and trafficking, but as health statistics and other indicators show, much more needs to be done to care for victims and prosecute their oppressors.


There are about 80,000 women in the UK involved in prostitution,[1] and many of them are from other countries. Eighty percent of the 8,000 prostitutes in London’s brothels, saunas, and massage parlors are foreign nationals, mainly from East Europe and Southeast Asia.[2] Part of the attraction to foreign sex workers is that for as little as £30, patrons can have unprotected sex, which would cost much more from British prostitutes.[3]

Regardless of nationality, 50% of women in prostitution have been coerced into the sex industry while under the age of consent.[4] Three out of four women in prostitution become involved while aged 21 or younger, and 1 in 2 while aged 18 or younger.[5] Street prostitution is illegal (though it still goes on), but there are many other outlets for prostitution in the UK. Eighty-seven percent of women in street-based prostitution use heroin.[6]


There are an estimated 500,000 women and children, mainly from Eastern Europe, Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, trafficked to countries in the European Union for sexual exploitation every year, according to the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control.[7] The International Organization of Migration claims that this business generates US$8 billion per year and the organization attributes the soaring rate of trafficking to the increasing demand for prostitution in the EU as well as the rise of organized crime in Eastern Europe.[8]

The United Kingdom is primarily a country of destination for trafficked women and children from Eastern Europe, East Asia, and West Africa for the purposes of sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. Dublin is often an entry point into the UK because of easy access from other EU countries and subsequently to the UK. The UK may also play a role as a transit country to other Western European countries. Home Office research has estimated that up to 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation in 1998, and the figure is considered a rough estimate of the yearly amount.[9] But there is great variation in estimates of the number of trafficked women and children, even within Home Office research. An NGO that is involved in caring for these women states that an estimated 2,000 women were trafficked into the UK last year for the purposes of constrained prostitution.[10] Other sources say that 6 out of 10 prostitutes working in London brothels have been trafficked.[11]

Maria, a Ukrainian woman...

Organized crime has been increasingly involved in trafficking to the UK and profit margins for such business are huge. In one case, 100 women were trafficked for prostitution from remote villages in Brazil to London over a 5-year period and the women were held under debt bondage; the trafficker made a £5 million profit.[12] Chinese triads have also been trafficking women into the UK, according to the Metropolitan Police Service. The traffickers bring the women in as tourists, or on bogus travel documents from Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong to be prostitutes in Central London brothels. Many of the women are held as prisoners through debt bondage working 12 to 14 hour shifts seven days a week and earning a very small percentage of what men pay. Their passports/ false identity cards are taken from them.[13] And, although the prostitutes do not make much money of their own, they can be sold between brothels for up to £10,000.[14] Metropolitan Police estimate that trafficked women are forced to see 30 to 40 clients per day.[15] Therefore, with the ‘debts,’ long working hours, many clients per day, and trading, traffickers and pimps squeeze enormous profits out of the women, not to mention their lives and self worth.

Trafficked women rarely enter the UK by illegal means, though there have been cases of people being smuggled in lorries as cargo, but they frequently enter on legitimate or illegitimate documents, and are accompanied by the trafficker or an English speaking man who poses as a woman’s husband or boyfriend. Some women arrive by plane, especially if they are from Thailand or Africa, although sometimes, the trafficker and victim fly into another European country and travel by Eurostar.[16]

According to the 2002 Census there were 16,256 people of Thai origin in the UK of which 4,526 were male (28%) and 11,730 (72%) were female. These figures include students and others resident in the UK but not children with British citizenship born to Thai nationals, people on tourist visas, or those who have overstayed. The most startling statistic is in the issuing of marriage visas: for every visas issued to a Thai man, forty-five were issued to Thai women in 2002. No other immigrant group coming to the UK had such a disproportionate ratio.[17]


After the highly publicized case of the boy whose torso was found in the Thames River, Scotland Yard made an inquiry to London education authorities about missing boys and found that between July and September 2001, 300 black boys had disappeared from schools — 299 of whom came from Africa and one from the Caribbean — and police fear thousands may go missing annually.[18] Child welfare experts say the figures hint at the scale of child trafficking. End Child Prostitution And Trafficking (ECPAT) UK research has shown that in 2004, social services in 32 out of 33 London Boroughs were concerned about trafficked children within their care.[19]

Children as young as 11 years old are enslaved in prostitution in Bradford. Of 100 girls under 18 encountered by workers from the aid group Streets and Lanes Project, the average age was 14 and the youngest was 11.[20] Older pimps exploit them, lock them up in bedsits, and often deny them access to food or a toilet. The law is failing to protect them. In fact, the law often children treats children involved in prostitution as criminals instead of victims. The number of children convicted of child prostitution more than doubled from 1995 to 1996 — 210 children aged 17 and under were convicted of offenses relating to prostitution in 1996 compared to 101 children in 1995, and the number of cases rose from 263 to 287, including one of an 11 year old girl.[21]

Data also reflects that prosecutions for perpetrators of sex crimes against young girls have fallen dramatically over a period of 10 years and suggests that laws governing age consent are disregarded. In 1985 there were 138 prosecutions of men who had sex unlawfully with girls under 13 but only 77 in 1995. In 1986 162 men were cautioned or found guilty of having sex with girls under 13, compared with only 94 in 1996. And, in 1986 there were 1,426 successful prosecutions of men who had sex with girls aged 14 and 15, compared with only 576 in 1996.[22]

Elena from Lithuania...


Figures for what percentage of British males use the services of prostitutes are not readily available for indicating the scope of demand for women in prostitution, but some information is available on pornography. Of course, not all pornography users frequent prostitutes, but the growing demand for it indicates a growing attitude of acceptance of the commodification of and violence towards women and children in British society.

In the UK, 33 percent of all Internet users access what is called hardcore pornography and the heaviest demand is for pornographic material featuring children, bondage, sadomasochism, and sex acts with various animals. [23] And, as if the Internet does not make access easy enough, the adult entertainment group called Private Media will soon beam pornography to UK mobile phones. The most-watched film in Britain last year was not the latest Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but rather a stolen pornographic home movie that was downloaded by six million people.[24] Six million people is around 10% of the population of the UK.

While studying the effects of sustained exposure to non-violent pornography, psychologist Jennings Bryant found that men rapidly begin to seek increasingly extreme material as their exposure to pornography increases. He says, "pornography can transform a male who was not previously interested in the more abusive types of pornography into one who is turned on by such material."[25] No one really is unscathed by pornography. Men who describe themselves as chronic porn addicts admit it has warped their emotional lives; teenage boys end up with wildly unrealistic expectations that women are constantly "up for it" and infinitely sexually pliable; and girls then feel pressure to try to meet those swollen expectations — girls who have internalized the norms of pornography and who try to convince themselves that they enjoy their boyfriends' extreme sexual requests.[26]

The language used to describe these issues also represents the normalization and acceptance in British society of prostitution and exploitation of women and children for sexual purposes. “The sex industry thrives on renaming its sexual exploitation as ‘sex’; pornography is called ‘erotica’ or ‘adult videos’; prostitution is renamed as ‘sex work’ or ‘sexual services’; pimps are now called ‘third party business managers’ or ‘erotic entrepreneurs’; and lap dancing or sex clubs are called ‘gentlemen’s entertainment.’”[27]

Sex Tourism

Britain is one of the worst sex tourism offenders, with India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and some Arab countries being the most favored destinations of sex tourists. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, in January 2004 alone, there were over 50% more British men than British women who arrived for holiday. It is unknown how many of those men went for sex tourism or got involved in it once in Thailand, but because of the ratio of men to women tourists, it was probably not for a family holiday.

In addition, Britain has listed over 5,000 to 6,000 known paedophile tourists.[28] Approximately 24 British paedophiles were known to have been living in Thailand in 1997,[29] and in the same year, two of the three paedophilia cases recently decided by Philippine courts involved British nationals, who are often suspects as perpetrators of child prostitution in the Philippines.[30] Fortunately, recent law changes have enabled courts to issue travel bans on convicted child sex offenders.[31]

Research by ECPAT UK into travelers' understanding of child sex tourism has found that 54% had either seen child sex tourism on holiday or had read about it in their country of destination. The research also aimed to find out if travelers would be put off from booking a holiday if the tour operator or travel agent told them that they were working to prevent child sex tourism. Sixty-one percent said they would not be deterred from booking the holiday, and 34% said that it would make them more likely to book the holiday. However, 5% said they would be less likely to book the holiday. [32]


Prostitution is legal but there are 36 offenses linked to it, such as soliciting in a public place, keeping brothels, controlling prostitutes, and living off immoral earnings. The Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 prohibits trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, with penalties of up to 15 years' imprisonment. The Sexual Offenses Act of 2003 increased possible penalties to life imprisonment for trafficking for sexual exploitation. Trafficking penalties would then be commensurate with rape and subject to extra-territorial jurisdiction.[33] The act also makes it an offense to procure a woman outside of the UK for the purposes of prostitution. In December 2004, two Albanian traffickers were convicted under the law; one was sentenced to 18 years in prison and the other 9 years.[34] Despite taking some significant domestic legal steps to combat trafficking, the UK has not taken all available international legal steps. As of May 2005, the UK had not yet signed the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.[35]

Regarding enforcement, the Home Office has announced significantly increased funding for its transnational crime investigative unit, Task Force Reflex. In 2004, Task Force Reflex reported over 200 arrests for organized prostitution and immigration-related crimes, leading to 28 convictions, including one in which the defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking-related offenses. [36] The government has also established anti-trafficking projects with Bulgaria and Romania as well as Thailand, where UK police and Intelligence services are training Thai police to combat commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and trafficking.[37]

Many of the measures being taken by the UK Government against sexual exploitation seem to deal with immigration issues. Metropolitan Police are setting up new teams at airports and ports to prevent the entry of trafficked children The Ports Safeguarding Team will operate at Heathrow, Waterloo Eurostar, and Croydon's Asylum Screening Centre. [38] In February 2005, a new immigration plan was unveiled wherein only skilled workers who speak English and have lived in Britain five years would be able to apply for permanent residency and all foreigners applying for visas would be fingerprinted to prevent them from slipping into the black economy.[39]

The government has probably taken the least action in the area of treatment and protection of victims. The Home Office funds the London-based Poppy Project to provide a limited number of beds in safe housing for women who have been trafficked into prostitution. But the funding is only for 25 places, with access provided under narrow criteria, and dependent on the woman’s agreeing to cooperate in an investigation or prosecution. Demand for spaces far exceeds supply and there is still no safe house for children who have been trafficked.

Two sisters ran Britains biggest Thai prostitution racket....


Despite many legal provisions made with the intentions of protecting the rights of prostitutes and preventing trafficking, not much has been done to protect the health of women involved in prostitution in the UK. Anna Johansson of the Poppy Project says almost all women (about 250 since March 2003) coming to them have chlamydia, syphilis, or are HIV positive.[40] In addition, a Home Office consultation paper states that 95% of street prostitutes have drug problems.[41]

[1] BBC News, 4 December 2004. These are 1999 figures.

[2] “Were these missing girls sold for sex?” The Northern Echo, 19 April, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hughes, Donna M., Laura Joy Sporcic, Nadine Z. Mendelsohn, and Vanessa Chirgwin, The Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, 1999,

[5] Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, “UK Data on Prostitution,” 26 May 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Raymond, Janice G. Ph.D, Public Hearing on “The Impact of the Sex Industry in the E.U,” Committee on Women’s Rights and Equal Opportunities, European Parliament, January 19, 2004.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kelly, Liz and Linda Regan, Stopping Traffic: Exploring the extent of, and responses to trafficking in women for sexual exploitation in the UK, Police Research Series, Paper 125, London: UK Home Office, 2000.

[10] Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe (CHASTE) Website,

[11] “Prostitute rackets rife in UK,” BBC News, 17 February 2000,

[12] Superintendent Michael Hoskins, "Trafficking in Women for Sexual Exploitation: Assessment of the Current Threat Within Central London" Metropolitan Police Service (June 1996), cited in Hughes et al, Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation, 1999.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Migrant women forced into cheap sex trade; surge in rough, unprotected sex as east European prostitutes in London live in fear of violent pimps,” The Guardian, 11 February 2005.

[15] Amnesty International UK, “Sex Traffick: Trafficking of Women and Girls for Prostitution,” June 2004.

[16] Somerset, Carron, “What the Professionals Know: The trafficking of children into, and through, the UK for sexual purposes,” ECPAT UK: November 2001.

[17] website, Jon and Sukanjana Boagey 2002 to 2005. Last updated May 2005.

[18] “Hundreds of children ‘vanishing’,” BBC News, 13 May 2005.

[19] UNICEF, “Charities call for support for new Anti-Trafficking Convention,” 16 May 2005.

[20] Walsh, Sarah, "Shock of 11-year-old children enslaved in prostitution," Telegraph & Argus, 14 July 1998.

[21] Children’s Society Home Office, "Child prostitution figures double," 29 January 1998.

[22] Hall, Celia, "Fall in sex crime points to crisis in consent law," London Telegraph, 24 February 1998.

[23] Raymond, Janice G. Ph.D, Public Hearing on “The Impact of the Sex Industry in the E.U,” Committee on Women’s Rights and Equal Opportunities, European Parliament, January 19, 2004.

[24] Hari, Johann, “It's everywhere: just don't talk about it,” New Statesman, 7 March 2005, available at

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Raymond, Janice G. Ph.D, Public Hearing on “The Impact of the Sex Industry in the E.U,” Committee on Women’s Rights and Equal Opportunities, European Parliament, January 19, 2004.

[28] "Global law to punish sex tourists sought by Britain and EU," The Indian Express, 21 November 1997.

[29] “Child Care Agencies, UK police join fight against Thai child sex tourism,” BBC News, 9 December 1997.

[30] Philippines News Agency, 2 September 1997.

[31] BBC News, 9 February 2005.

[32] “Market research reveals how to inform travellers about child sex tourism,” Embargo, August 2004.

[33] US State Department, 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report, June 14, 2004.

[34] The Northern Echo, 19 April, 2005.

[35] UNICEF, “Charities call for support for new Anti-Trafficking Convention,” 16 May 2005.

[36] Ibid.

[37] BBC News, 9 February 2005.

[38] “Teams to fight child trafficking,” BBC News, 17 May 2004.

[39] BBC News, 7 February 2005.

[40] The Guardian, 11 February 2005

[41] BBC News, 4 December 2004.

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