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What happens to the victims?

Regular readers may have noticed by now my deep scepticism that Sweden’s sex purchase ban has actually reduced the amount of sex trafficking to Sweden. There are a couple of reasons for my suspicions. First, as I wrote in this post on another blog, the definition of “trafficking” is so easily (and so often) manipulated to suit particular agendas that I’m automatically sceptical of any claims made about it, anywhere. (Actually, I’m increasingly coming around to doubting the usefulness of the term at all, but that’s a subject for another post.) The second is that when you strip away the Swedish spin and look at the number of trafficking cases their police are actually finding, as detailed in a number of my posts on this blog, it becomes pretty obvious that the country is in a state of collective denial.

But let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong, and that the ban actually has had the claimed effect on sex trafficking to Sweden. Obviously, if you’re a member of a Swedish government party or a police official coming under pressure to “solve the trafficking problem”, this looks like a very good thing. But here’s a question I’ve never actually seen answered (or even asked) by the law’s advocates: what happens to the victims?

Because there seems to be this assumption that if sex traffickers can’t get their victims into Sweden, they’ll just give up and go home. Why would that be? There’s nothing special about sex trafficking into Sweden that would lead traffickers to make a career change if they couldn’t do it anymore. So what would they do instead?

One well-noted side effect of the almost singular focus on trafficking into the sex industry is the tendency to overlook this type of exploitation in other sectors. In fact, trafficking for non-sexual purposes wasn’t even criminalised in Sweden until 2004 – two years after sex trafficking was specifically outlawed, and five years after the sex purchase ban was introduced. Yet Swedish police reports confirm significant incidences of other types of trafficking:

The fifth item there is “Human trafficking for other purposes, total”, and as you can see the numbers are actually higher than for the second item, “Human trafficking for sexual purposes”. The usual caveat about actual vs detected cases applies, but it seems to me there are one of two possibilities: either the chart understates the amount of sex trafficking and there is actually far more than the Swedish police know about (in which case the law really is a dud, at least from that perspective), or trafficking for non-sexual purposes is a bigger problem than sex trafficking. And if the latter is true, then that suggests that to the extent (if any) that the law has reduced sex trafficking, the traffickers are simply placing their victims into other industries. (For those who are tempted to believe that this in itself is a victory, on the theory that any type of trafficking is better than sex trafficking, please do some reading on the abuse faced by migrant domestic workers and then come back and tell me that sex trafficking should be “solved” by shifting victims into that sector.)

An alternative possibility is that sex traffickers haven’t changed industries at all, but merely destination countries. This in fact is the position advanced by the Swedish government, which regularly compares its “foreign prostitute” count to that of its neighbours in order to promote the deterrent effect of the law (although, as Laura Agustín has pointed out, it’s relied on erroneous data to do so). What if we assume that the law actually has reduced the number of migrant sex workers in Sweden compared to its neighbours, and that this in fact represents fewer sex trafficking victims (an unsafe assumption, but one we’ll make for the sake of argument)? Well, again, this is all very good from the Swedish government’s perspective: it makes those victims someone else’s problem. But what does it do for them? And why is this issue so thoroughly ignored by the law’s advocates?

“But it isn’t,” abolitionists might protest. “We want all countries to adopt the same law, so that there is no other country the traffickers can go to.” But if that’s the best they can come up with their plan is doomed from the start. Realistically the law is not going to be adopted in every single country, and even if it was it would not be identically enforced everywhere. Sex traffickers would simply find the countries where it was easiest to get around the law at any particular point in time, and operate there. If anyone has any doubts about this just bear in mind the apparent displacement (as noted here) of migrant sex workers to Sweden after Norway adopted its own sex purchase ban.

Some abolitionists, it seems, aren’t even aiming as high as a worldwide ban. I can’t find the page now, but a week or so ago I read an article advocating the spread of the Swedish model in order to make Europe a cold house for traffickers, or words to that effect. Think about that for a minute. Even if we got past the problem of non-uniform laws and enforcement, where do they want the victims displaced to? Iran?

I’m not suggesting there is no place for criminalisation in counter-trafficking work. There is – for genuine cases of exploitation. But if we are actually interested in preventing people becoming victims, and not just keeping those victims out of our backyards, we simply have to go beyond deterrence strategies aimed at traffickers and service users in particular sectors. We need to look at structural issues, issues around development in source countries, the interrelationship between sex trafficking and trafficking for non-sexual labour, inadequate labour protection for workers in general and migrant and sex workers in particular, and how fortress-like border policies drive labour migrants and refugees into traffickers’ arms.

These are not easy issues to address, especially given the lack of political will to address them. But how much easier would it be to pressurise countries to address them if abolitionists weren’t giving them an easy way out by allowing them to say they’ve done their bit by cracking down on prostitution?

The simple fact is that even if the sex purchase ban worked to prevent sex trafficking to Sweden, there is no reason to believe it has prevented a single person from being trafficked. None whatsoever. It is not, in any sense of the matter, a solution to the trafficking problem. And it is diverting people’s energies from looking for real solutions. Trafficked persons, and persons at risk of being trafficked, deserve better than being told we’re “helping” them by trying only to keep them out of our country.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

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