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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Quick note on last night’s Vincent Browne

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In the wake of a massive brothel raid police operation, the Vincent Browne show last night debated the issue of prostitution in Ireland. If you missed it a playback should be available soon here.

I don’t have too much to say about it but there are a couple points made by the anti-sex work speakers that I want to address. First, in response to a viewer’s claim that the rape rate in Sweden has skyrocketed since the sex purchase ban was introduced, Susan McKay of the National Women’s Council flatly denied that this was true and said that crime has generally gone down in Sweden.

The official statistics on reported offences in Sweden are here. I’ve taken a screenshot of the relevant time period (click on it to enlarge):

As you can see, the viewer was correct: the reported rape rate has gone up significantly since the sex purchase ban was introduced. Sarah Benson of Ruhama, another panelist, was correct to point out that Sweden broadened its definition during the period – in 2005, I believe, interestingly the same year that the Netherlands broadened their definition of trafficking– and in any event, these are only reported rapes so it’s impossible to know for sure whether the number of actual rapes has increased. And I’m sceptical of the claim of any link between legality of prostitution and rape in the first place, not least because there is no evidence that making it illegal to buy sex actually stops men from doing so. So I am not posting these statistics to make a claim that the rape rate has increased because of the law. My point is that Susan McKay responded to the allegation by not only flatly denying it but making a further claim about the general crime rate which, as you can see from those stats, is also wildly off the mark. With the exception of theft offences, it is absolutely, 100% untrue that crime rates have decreased since the law was introduced, and its advocates really need to be hauled over the coals for their willingness to make such breathtakingly false claims. (I’ll give McKay the benefit of the doubt that she may have been merely repeating something she was told since, as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, the Swedish authorities routinely fudge the truth around the law’s effects.)

The other thing I wanted to highlight was Sarah Benson’s assertion, in response to the point that Teresa Whitaker of the Sex Workers Alliance made about the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work report, that HIV is not an issue for Irish sex workers. Yes, you read that correctly, HIV is not an issue – because the HIV rate is so low, except among injecting drug users, who apparently don’t count.

I frankly find it astonishing that anyone who works with sex workers should dismiss the relevance of HIV – and it’s worth pointing to this document on the Ruhama website in which Benson says the opposite:

Women and children will contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. This does not magically happen. Buyers are the source of infection and transmit it to women…

But the other point to be made here, and my tweet to this effect was read by Vincent Browne but ignored by the panel, is that the law they are advocating has the potential to make HIV much more of an issue. As I wrote about here and here, Norwegian health services are already seeing a rise in other STIs since the sex purchase ban was introduced, which they attribute to a greater reluctance to use condoms: where sex sellers are struggling to make a living because their clients have gone elsewhere, they are more vulnerable to demands for unprotected sex. It’s not rocket science. So even if Benson was correct that HIV isn’t an issue for Irish sex workers now, there’s a very good chance it will be if she gets her way on the law. Indeed, that’s pretty much the point the UNAIDS Advisory Group Report makes.

Finally, I look forward to a future Vincent Browne episode featuring the voices of actual sex workers. We need to remember that they are not, as Benson also (remarkably) put it, “burgers” but people with their own views on what they do and what the law should do about it. We need to create an environment where they can speak out and not only contribute to but actually shape the debate, which is, after all, about their lives and not ours. I’ll close here by linking to the Stories From Behind The Red Light blog, which is run by actual Irish-based sex workers. They are the people who should have been up on that panel last night.

On Labour Women’s Statement on the EU Fiscal Treaty

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Earlier this month, several female elected representatives of the Labour Party held a press conference and issued a statement calling for a Yes vote in Thursday’s EU Fiscal Treaty referendum. Their message was aimed at women, and Mairead Enright has a good piece here pointing out the tired essentialism in their appeal.

The first thing I thought of when I read this was a poster put up by the Yes side during one of the last referendum campaigns:

I never saw the “Ireland for Europe” group’s explanation of what they meant by this slogan – safer from what? – but the message was pretty clear. It was written in the first person singular, “I” rather than “We”, indicating personal and not collective safety. It featured a woman – can you imagine it featuring a man? – of an age where personal safety is likely to be a matter of significant concern; she is past the fearlessness of youth, but is neither so old that voters see her age before her gender, nor too young for senior women to identify with. In short, she is Everywoman, with the exception only of those women young enough to be targeted in the “young people” category. While the Yes campaign generally traded on fear, it was a peculiarly gendered, intimate type of fear that this poster aimed at instilling.

The Labour Women statement of the current campaign isn’t quite so brazen, but there is still a current of intimate fear running through it. Note, again, the reference to women’s safety in their support for the Treaty:

Joan Burton opened by reminding us that for women a YES vote is the safest option.

There is very little in the statement about what the Treaty will actually do to improve women’s lives – in fact, one of the speakers openly admits to the lack of direct positive consequences of a Yes – but a lot about what might happen if we don’t pass it, which Labour Women threaten could amount to no less than “devastation” for “you and your family”.

As Enright’s post shows, the statement makes a lot of suggestions as to why a Yes vote should appeal to our womanly nature. But it gives only one real concrete reason to vote for it: to get access to European Stability Mechanism funding. Without this funding, it is implied, social welfare will have to be cut, gender inequality will worsen, poverty will increase. Not mentioned is the fact that the Treaty also requires a commitment to the same austerity measures that have already led to social welfare being cut, gender inequality worsening and poverty increasing. Measures which Labour themselves have been implementing in government, through the very woman (Joan Burton, the Social Protection Minister) who opened this press conference.

Labour, of course, were firmly opposed to austerity while in opposition. In her response to the final budget of the previous government, Minister Burton said:

There is enough austerity in today’s announcement by the Minister, Deputy Lenihan, to make even the most ardent Tea Party fan grin in delight. There is pain for the poor, money for the rich, particularly for the bankers, and the rolling back of the State.

What has all the austerity and deflation done for us as a country so far? In more than two and quarter years of austerity, unemployment has risen from 4% to 14%, which is 435,000 people. Austerity has slashed growth, it has killed consumer confidence and turned us into a nation who are busy paying down debt or saving – anything but spending.

We all know about the famous three Rs that are the bedrock of early education. There is another set of three Rs that became the bedrock of economic recovery in the post-Depression era and formed the basis of the post-war politics in Europe, irrespective of the country or party in power. These three Rs are reflation, redistribution and reform. If the Labour Party is in Government after the next election, reflation, redistribution and reform will be what its participation in government will be about.

During the election campaign, plenty more promises like that were made by Labour, and all of them were broken. The three Rs we’ve got from this government have been recession, redundancies and repossessions. When asked to explain this about-face, Labour often responds by blaming the EU-ECB-IMF Troika. Burton again:

I am conscious that the reforms which are on the table may be painful for some in the short-term.

But we are constrained in what we can achieve by the fact that we are living on borrowed money, borrowed money which comes with many conditions attached.

In other words, having loaned Ireland the money it needs to run itself, the IMF and its Troika partners are also dictating how it is spent. The internal Labour line, or so I’ve been told by a party apparatchik, is that the Troika has people with veto power monitoring every government department. Now either that’s not actually true and the Labour/Fine Gael government are implementing these measures of their own accord, or Ireland is part of what can only be deemed an extremely unhealthy relationship of financial dependence, in which the other party controls all the purse strings.

The Labour Women statement, incredibly, implies that the solution to the problems created by this financial dependence is to sign up to more of it. The statement admits that the Treaty won’t bring us jobs, investment and growth, but since Ireland can’t access ESM funds without it, we

depend on this treaty to be passed to have a more secure future

At the end of the day, this is really what it’s all about: “security” is equated with “access to [someone else’s] money”. And to be entirely dependent on someone else’s money but have little control over what we can do with it, that’s not a bad thing. To be making huge sacrifices in a relationship that we’re not getting anything else out of – including things that we really need – that’s not a bad thing either. Forget things like autonomy, self-fulfilment and self-determination; as long as we have that security in our lives, that’s all that matters.

What kind of message does that send to women?

“There was no lack of buyers” – Swedish sex trafficking trial concludes

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It may have escaped your notice if you rely on what the Swedes tell other countries about their sex trafficking problem, but last week several men were convicted for what Swedish prosecutors have called one of the largest trafficking rings of its kind ever uncovered in that country. It involved Romanian women who were brought to Sweden, some of them on the pretence of working in legal industries, and forced to sell sex in various Gothenburg arenas. You can read more about it here, here and here.

I won’t cite all the tragedy porn in those links (though I have no doubt supporters of the Swedish model would, if it had happened in a country where buying sex was legal), but there are a couple things I think are worth drawing attention to. The first is the quote in the title of this post, which comes from the third link. That article goes on to report one of the women’s testimony that she had seven or eight customers on her very first night. This doesn’t say much for the supposed deterrent effect of the sex purchase ban.

The second is the breakdown of ages (in the final link) of the men convicted of buying sex from these women: 36% were born in the 1960s, 21% in the 1970s and 30% in the 1980s. The other 13% aren’t accounted for except to say that the oldest was 76 and the youngest 17. So nearly a third, and perhaps slightly over that, were teenagers when the ban was introduced in 1999: further evidence (as I discussed here) that it hasn’t had the normative effect it was supposed to have on younger men.

The 17-year-old’s conviction is interesting for another reason. If Wikipedia (and all the other links I’ve found by Googling) is correct, Sweden’s age of majority is 18, which means that he is legally still a child. There’s nothing unusual about minors being convicted of crimes, of course, but the way that prostitution is conceptualised in Sweden does make this rather remarkable. The ideology underlying the sex purchase ban is that women cannot choose to sell sex; evidently, however, Swedish law considers that male children (at least of a certain age) can choose to buy it. In other words, when it comes to trading sex for money, adult women are less competent than male children. Could there be any clearer illustration of how this law infantilises women?

(It’s true that at least some of the women involved in this ring didn’t actually choose to sell sex, but the law doesn’t make a distinction between those who do and those who don’t. As far as I can tell from the various reports, the men were convicted for buying sex simpliciter, not for buying sex from trafficked persons, which does not appear to be a separate offence in Swedish law. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.)

Nor is this an isolated incident. Last month, the same journal carried a story about another “large scale sex trafficking ring”, involving an even greater number of women, in Stockholm. In fact, the Swedish-language paper Sydsvenska, discussing the Gothenburg trial, says that “Många” (many) human trafficking cases have been reported since the law was brought in. The law’s advocates, funnily enough, seem to leave that detail out of their propaganda.

Some of the other Swedish language reports have equally interesting comments. I tracked down the source of that client age survey, this Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) article, in which I found the following information about the Gothenburg sex trade (Google Translate C&P job, but you get the gist):

The two worst pimps were convicted of trafficking and the other four for aggravated procuring. But in the street sex trade going back to normal. “Moreover, there prostitution in more arenas than we can access,” says social worker Ms Malmström…

We have also attempted to examine the major internet sites and SMS sent and email to over 300 who sell sex on the net, says Ms Malmström, so the market is actually much larger.

This article in the Gothenburg Post states that the men convicted included a municipal councillor, a Premier Division footballer, and several directors and sales managers. It also reports the County Police Commissioner as saying human trafficking is “a business with huge income and relatively low risks”. Not quite what we’ve been told about Sweden being an unattractive market for traffickers, is it?

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. The picture that advocates of the Swedish model are painting outside of Sweden is clearly very different to the reality inside Sweden. Furthermore, the Swedes don’t seem unaware that they still have significant issues with prostitution and sex trafficking – they just don’t want the rest of the world to know about it. And so, they send their spokespersons out to lobby for the sex purchase ban in other countries, by making claims that are directly contradicted by their own officials in their own media. And credulous moralists and anti-sex work feminists swallow it wholesale, no questions asked.

What’s the Swedish for “con job”?

Human trafficking in Ireland, 2011

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The Irish Department of Justice’s Annual Report of Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland for 2011 was published recently and I’ve now had a chance to look it over. As you’d probably expect, the coverage of it has been pretty superficial, but that’s not entirely the journalists’ fault: it’s a pretty superficial document, which leaves a lot of really important questions unanswered. That said, no one’s exactly asking them, either.

So here are my thoughts about what this report tells us – and doesn’t tell us – about human trafficking in Ireland in 2011. First, a bit of context. Trafficking is prohibited under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, which you can read here. Sections 1-4 are the parts that set out the definition of the offence, and if you don’t mind a bit of legalese it’s interesting to compare them to the international definition set out in the Palermo Protocol on trafficking, which we finally got around to ratifying two years ago. The Irish statute is much wordier, which is entirely typical of domesticised versions of international law: the latter are typically aspirational, unenforceable and constructed through compromise, so detailed definitions are usually neither necessary nor (from a state’s perspective) desirable. The former, however, are the actual law in a country and so need to be drafted with precision.

Length aside, there are three differences I want to focus on between the Irish and international definitions. These are differences in how the two texts deal with what I’ll call the “what”, “why” and “how” of trafficking. The “what” difference is really just technical: in the Irish law (Section 1), “trafficking” itself is a neutral term and is not an offence per se. If you give someone a job, or a place to live, or put them on a bus to another county, you’ve trafficked them. It becomes an offence only if you do these things in a certain way (the “how”) and for a certain purpose (i.e. exploitation, the “why”), which I’ll get to shortly.

By contrast, under Palermo “trafficking” is defined by the simultaneous presence of the “what”, “why” and “how”, so trafficking must always be a crime. I’m not sure that this difference has any practical significance (the Irish statute’s broad definition has no relevancy outside this Act), but it’s one of those things that law nerds like me get excited about.

The second difference, which is much more important, is the restriction that Irish law places on the meaning of “exploitation” (the “why”). Palermo states that

Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs…

The Irish law, on the other hand, spells out what “other forms of sexual exploitation” are included, and draws out (without really adding anything) the non-sexual labour provisions, crucially omitting Palermo’s “at a minimum” phrase. So whereas in international law a highly abusive practice with all the other elements of trafficking could conceivably qualify as such without fitting into any of the specified types of exploitation, in Ireland at least one of the boxes has to be ticked before the exploitation can be deemed to amount to trafficking. This isn’t a criticism of the Irish law; if it did include an “at a minimum” phrase, it could probably never be used or a person convicted under it would have a constitutional challenge for vagueness. But it helps to explain why it can be so difficult to show exploitation amounting to human trafficking, even where exploitation in the everyday sense is obvious.

The final key difference is similar; it’s the way the two texts define the “how”. In the Protocol, it’s

by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person

Here, too, there’s a catch-all that can potentially encompass a very broad range of circumstances. It’s the clause about “abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability”. A person with limited migration and/or employment options is almost by definition in a position of vulnerability; a person with the ability to facilitate or deny them access to those options is by definition in a position of power. What constitutes “abuse” is not defined, and is therefore open to a wide degree of interpretation (and ideological spin).

The Irish law adds a significant qualifier to its version of this clause: under Section 4(1)(c) of the 2008 Act, abuse of this type is only sufficient to bring about a trafficking charge if it

cause[d] the trafficked person to have had no real and acceptable alternative but to submit to being trafficked

So, in Ireland the abuse has to pretty much reach the level of coercion before the law is breached. This is pretty clearly an intentional narrowing of the Protocol’s definition, and gives rise to what could be an important question in adjudicating trafficking cases: who decides what is a “real and acceptable alternative”, and how?

Where children are concerned, both the Protocol and the Irish law have a similar feature in that they both disapply the “how” provisions: as long as the “what” and “why” are present, the child has been trafficked. And the Irish law adds a few things to the “what” of child trafficking. I’ll come back to this later.

So after that rather lengthy introduction (I didn’t actually think it was going to be that long when I started it, apologies) let’s move on to the actual report. We’ll begin with the statistics since that, unfortunately, is what people are usually most interested in. Page 8 has a table summarising the data on victims reported to the Department by the Irish police, An Garda Síochána:

Then on page 17, there’s a table of the victims reported to the Department by NGOs:

A couple important things here. First, the report states that the figures in the first table should be assumed to largely include the figures in the second table, although the Department’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit didn’t collect personal data on the victims so couldn’t be entirely sure.

The second important thing is that these are all reported – not confirmed – victims. In the first table, they are persons whom the police investigated as possible trafficking victims. In the second table, they are persons whom the NGOs (according to page 6)

believed exhibited indications of having been trafficked

In a similar vein, that strange “uncategorised exploitation” category in the first chart is explained on page 3 to mean that

while at the time of reporting there were general suspicions that these persons could be victims of human trafficking there were no firm indications that either labour or sex trafficking had occurred


So regard must be had to the possibility that in some of these cases there actually was no human trafficking. And the figures, of course, do not take into account those cases that were never detected or reported at all. As with every other human trafficking report in every other country, it is really a record of human trafficking (and alleged human trafficking) reporting, rather than being a record of human trafficking itself.

Page 10 gives a breakdown into age category, cross-referenced with exploitation category. Unfortunately all under-18s are lumped under the heading of “minor”; it would be useful to have more information on where the 7 reported child victims of sexual exploitation and 4 child victims of labour exploitation (plus one each of “both categories” and “uncategorised”) fell on the age scale. It’s all the same legally, of course, but I think there are few people who don’t recognise some kind of difference between a 17-year-old and a 7-year-old – at the very least they would call for rather different preventive approaches.

In terms of the child sexual exploitation, recall what I said above about the broad definition of “trafficking” where children are concerned. Just this week we had this case, in which a man was charged with attempted child trafficking after pulling a girl off her bicycle with the aim of abducting and raping her. A horrific crime, to be sure, but not exactly what most people think of when they see headlines like this. Those who are tempted to see those 13 reported victims as evidence of a growing problem of child trafficking (as it is commonly understood) should bear in mind that some of them may have actually been victims of a type of abuse we’re much more familiar with in Ireland.

Page 11 gives a breakdown of region of origin, and there’s no surprise here: around two-thirds were from outside the EU, which in most cases means they had very restricted, or no, access to the legal labour market. This, as I’ve discussed repeatedly, is a major risk factor for trafficking (both for sexual and non-sexual exploitation). Six of the reported victims were Irish, and the article linked to in the last paragraph says that they were all underage although I can’t find that in the report. Nine were EU citizens, but we don’t know from where – and this is very important, because it too would affect their access to the labour market (Romanians and Bulgarians, remember, are still generally excluded).

Page 14 gives their immigration status:

Under the table is this footnote:

Please note that the reported immigration status reflects the status of persons at the time the information was provided to the AHTU and not when persons were reported to An Garda Síochána.

So with the presumed exception of the EU/Irish citizens, we have absolutely no idea what status the victims entered the country with, or what their status was at the time they were being trafficked within Ireland. That’s a shame, because it would be useful to know whether they’re coming in as asylum seekers, on work permits or bypassing border controls completely (by, for example, crossing the land border with the North). It would also be useful to know how many of them entered the asylum system after being trafficked because the possibility of refugee status offers them their only hope for remaining in Ireland.

On that note I’ll turn to the figure for “Administrative Arrangements”: this is the status for people who have been recognised by the police as victims of trafficking, and allowed to remain for a “reflection and recovery” period. At first glance it seems striking that only one person out of 57 has been granted this status. But there are a couple things worth bearing in mind. First, the main effect of the AA status is to give (limited) protection against deportation – so it doesn’t in any case apply to Irish and EU citizens, who have their own protections already. Thus it’s really one person out of 42. More significant are the figures on page 26, on the “Criminal Justice response to human trafficking”. This states that trafficking investigations are still ongoing in 32 cases (out of a total of 53 – some of these cases account for more than one of the 57 victims); in one case the claim was withdrawn; and in 6 they couldn’t find enough evidence to show that any trafficking took place. In such circumstances, the grounds for recognition really aren’t there. So now we’re down to one person given AA status out of 14 confirmed trafficking cases (that’s assuming that those 14 actually are “confirmed”, which isn’t explicitly stated on page 26 but seems to be the implication). And we don’t know how many of these 14 victims were Irish or EU citizens and so not entitled to AA status anyway. There were 15 reported Irish/EU victims in 2011, so conceivably it could be all of them. On the other hand, it could be none of them. Without better data, we don’t know – but we shouldn’t jump to knee-jerk conclusions based on one quick glance at the overall numbers.

The final thing I want to look at is the breakdown of cases reported by NGOs, by exploitation category and gender. Page 17 states that 22 of the 27 NGO cases were sexual exploitation, and one was labour + sexual. Page 19 says that all of the 27 were female.

It would be easy to cynically assume from this that Irish NGOs just aren’t interested in labour exploitation or in male victims. And, in fact, two of the four reporting NGOs do only deal with sexual exploitation, and one of these only works with women. But the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, for whom I have huge regard, focuses pretty much exclusively on labour exploitation and takes a gender-neutral approach. And in fact, only a day or two after this report appeared, the MRCI were quoted on the evening news as saying they’d found something like 167 cases of forced labour in the past few years (I can’t find a link to this news broadcast, so you’ll have to take my word for it). So why did they only report 4 cases of labour trafficking last year?

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I can think of a possible explanation. Quite simply, the Migrant Rights Centre exists to promote migrant rights. And human trafficking is not a rights-based concept. It should be, ideally, but trafficking law as conceived at both national and international levels is fundamentally a criminal justice instrument, aimed more at punishing perpetrators than protecting victims.

From this perspective, the Administrative Arrangements would be problematic even if they were liberally applied. Their main purpose (as you can read here) is to facilitate trafficked persons in assisting police with their inquiries. If and only if the person agrees to do so, they will be given temporary residence permission, but it’s clearly envisaged that eventually (i.e., when the investigation is complete) they’ll be repatriated.

That’s great if you’re one of the (very small percentage of) trafficking victims who was forcibly removed from your home country, and you want to return. It’s great if you left home voluntarily but have since decided that you want to return. It’s great if you harbour such (justifiable) ill will toward your traffickers that your paramount concern is to see them punished for their crimes. But if you just want to get on with your life and achieve the goals that you came to Ireland for in the first place? Not so much.

Since the MRCI deals only with victims of labour exploitation, it’s likely that a lot of them would have arrived in Ireland on a work permit. Although a work permit is valid in respect of one employer only, the stated Department of Jobs, Innovation and Enterprise policy is to allow a change of employer in cases of exploitation. (It’s questionable how well this policy is actually adhered to, but at least it’s an option on paper.) Unlike the Administrative Arrangements, a work permit offers a path to long-term residency and citizenship. Why, then, would a person who was subjected to forced labour – at least one who had a work permit to start with – want to pursue it as a trafficking case? There seems to be very little in it for them.

I could be entirely off base here, but even if this isn’t MRCI’s reason for not reporting forced labour cases as trafficking, it’s still a valid concern. The trafficking laws have little or no benefit for trafficking victims who entered the country on work permits – and by the same token, the DJIE policies which do benefit those victims (when they’re actually applied) are not an option for most people trafficked for sexual exploitation. Some researchers lament that victims of forced labour are much less likely to be considered “trafficked”, but it seems in Ireland they might be better off that way.

I said earlier that this is a report about reporting, so perhaps it’s fitting that one of the only things it strongly suggests is that Irish law discourages certain reporting. It’s hard to draw many other conclusions from the report. Trafficking itself is unmeasurable, but the very limited data provision here really doesn’t help us much in understanding what’s going on. Researchers and activists in this field should demand better information, rather than simply seizing on largely meaningless numbers which make easy headlines while actually telling us nothing.