Britain's Long Fight Against Slavery

Reports like MSNBC's can provoke outrage, but outrage alone will not keep people free from slavery. Nor will mere police work.
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"Just think, they sold me like a pig or a dog," a young woman cries to documentarians in the riveting MSNBC special Sex Slaves -- UK that will premiere in the U.S. on Sunday, May 22, at 9 p.m. eastern time. Adapted from the Channel 4 series The Hunt For Britain's Sex Traffickers, which aired last fall in the U.K., the documentary illustrates the tremendous challenges cops and reporters undertake when they seek to expose modern-day slavery. Worldwide, more people are enslaved -- forced to work for no pay beyond subsistence -- today than ever before. The documentary chronicles the most substantive modern British anti-slavery effort, Operation Pentameter II, involving all 55 U.K. police forces in a coordinated blitz of raids against sex traffickers. The 2007 operation yielded 406 arrests, over $1 million in seized assets, and 167 rescued victims, some as young as 14, whom traffickers had controlled in underground brothels, massage parlors, and saunas.

Police conducted the operation during the bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade. As do the journalists who filmed Sex Slaves, the architects of that original abolition 200 years ago, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, understood the power of slave narratives. Ever since then, journalists who focus on slavery have found that engaging with victims involves daunting challenges.

Consider the cautionary tale of the famous British journalist William Thomas Stead. In 1885, Stead set out to prove that sex slavery existed in Victorian London. He enlisted a former prostitute to buy a thirteen-year-old English girl for £5. "My purpose was not to secure the punishment of criminals but to lay bare the working of a great organization of crime," he wrote in his series for the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead's stories shocked the urban gentry. In their collective consciousness, as in our own, sex slavery existed not in their city but in foreign lands. Sex slaves were imagined as the plush, scrubbed, ivory-fleshed Ottoman odalisques eroticized by French Orientalist painters. Stead shattered both myths. While many entered prostitution by choice, he wrote, others "are simply snared, trapped and outraged either when under the influence of drugs or after a prolonged struggle in a locked room, in which the weaker succumbs to sheer downright force." Riots broke out as a million Londoners fought to obtain copies of a paper that had previously had a circulation of 12,000. Hundreds of thousands agitated to change British law to address the horror of children being forced into sex slavery.

But Stead was undone by his methods. George Bernard Shaw, who had originally supported the publication, shortly declared the exposé to be a "put-up job." British authorities arrested Stead on abduction charges, and an Old Bailey judge sentenced him to three months in prison. He never recovered his good reputation.

As Stead set out to do 123 years earlier, the documentarians who made The Hunt For Britain's Sex Traffickers seek to shock Britons as to the proximity and persistence of slavery. And while they rightly avoid Stead's unethical methods while accurately portraying the myriad obstacles to freeing slaves, they fail at a different challenge. Their work, as moving as it is, fails to reveal that a quick strike fight against the slave trade (or human trafficking as it is now called) like Operation Pentameter II, does not end the much larger problem of slavery itself.

To start, the fight against human trafficking is underfunded. The United Kingdom, like the United States, spends less in one year to fight the traffic in human beings than it does in one day to fight the traffic in illegal drugs. And the U.K. gets what it pays for: Operation Pentameter's 406 arrests yielded only five convictions of traffickers who had forced victims into prostitution -- and all five had been reported to the police before the raids.

Moreover, the focus on sex trafficking obscures the fact that many more people are enslaved in trades like agriculture and domestic service. "There are more people trafficked for labor exploitation than there are for sexual exploitation," Chief Constable Grahame Maxwell, program director of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, told the Guardian. Yet at the time of this operation in 2007, British courts had not convicted a single trafficker on forced labor charges. Despite policy changes aimed at better victim protection today, when labor slaves are discovered, authorities often process them for deportation rather than granting them asylum, according to a report released last summer by Anti-Slavery International. A year before that report was released, the U.K. shut down its only police force dedicated to trafficking after the Home Office withdrew funding.

Reports like MSNBC's can provoke outrage, but outrage alone will not keep people free from slavery. Nor will mere police work. "We can't prosecute our way out of this crime," said Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, President Obama's anti-trafficking czar. Though it is grossly underfunded in its efforts, under CdeBaca, the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has begun to creatively support those programs that address the root causes of slavery -- social isolation, inequality, and withering poverty.

The U.K. government, however, views such programs as less important than keeping undocumented workers out: "The key is prevention" of human trafficking, Conservative MP David Davis said at the time of the operation, "which is why Conservative proposals for a dedicated border police force would have the greatest impact." Survivors have told me that such restrictive immigration policies often have the unintended consequence of strengthening the hands of traffickers, who play on slaves' fear of authority to prevent them from seeking help.

Thus, despite its foundational role in abolition, and despite sizzling operations like that portrayed in Sex Slaves, the United Kingdom has fallen behind its former colony in the fight against the 5,000-year-old crime.

E. Benjamin Skinner is the author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face With Modern Day Slavery, his first-person account of slavery around the world, including reporting on the experiences of current and former slaves and slave dealers in Haiti, Sudan, Romania and India. Five years in the making, the book received the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for non-fiction. He is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

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