Police raids can rescue some victims, but for long-term results the government must criminalise the buyers of sexual services

The news that a police crackdown on human trafficking netted 13 children between the ages of 14 and 17, shocking as it is, comes as no surprise to those working in the field. Although the exact number of women working in prostitution is by definition unknowable, one of the most commonly accepted statistics is that there are 80,000 women of which 70% were recruited before the age of 18 (see Paying the Price, Home Office, 2004). If you are considered to be a minor until the age of 18 under British law, and if trafficking is defined as “coercion or deceit”, then it is possible to conclude that 56,000 young women or children are being trafficked into the sex industry. Most of these will not be British born, as some police estimates put numbers of women trafficked from abroad at 85% of the total.

While the rescue of even one child is to be welcomed, raids and operations like these have greater significance in leading to public pressure to bring about changes in policy and perhaps some deterrent effect on traffickers – but they do not make a substantial dent in numbers rescued. The tragedy is that many of those rescued seem to slip through the net yet again; social services and other agencies do not appear to be well resourced enough to keep hold of them.

There are many, often interconnected, issues that make local women vulnerable to traffickers in the first place: physical or sexual abuse at home; homelessness; being in care; and drug addiction. These are huge systemic issues that need tackling in the long term.

However, a short cut is available, if only the government were prepared to take it: tackle demand by criminalising the buyers of sexual services. Ironically the government is prepared to be more robust in tackling demand for forced labour in areas such as catering, cleaning or agriculture. Of the 13 children rescued, three had been trafficked for forced labour. As the law now stands, their employers could be fined and even jailed for not checking on their immigration status, but the buyers of sexual services from the other 10 would go scot-free.

The government’s action plan on trafficking limply proposes to “target men who might use massage parlours, saunas or other kinds of brothel, through men’s magazines, websites or other targeted media using advertisements which raise awareness of trafficking for sexual exploitation and warn of the risks involved.” This is a risible response. On many internet chatrooms men exchange salacious tips about their sexual experiences with prostitutes. The younger they are or the more compliant they are because they have been trafficked, the more attractive they are to these men. Apparently the number of men who now pay for sex has doubled to nearly one in 10 since the 1990s.

The government needs to grasp the nettle and introduce legislation to make the buying of sex a criminal offence. Where this has been done, for example in Sweden, there is evidence that there has been a substantial reduction in women trafficked to those countries. A thriving sex industry is a magnet for traffickers, both national and international, and needs to be kicked where it hurts.